Reconciliation could be considered the theme of the first official visit of King Charles and Camilla, the Queen Consort, to Northern Ireland. The royal couple’s itinerary included an engagement at Hillsborough Castle, the royal residence in Northern Ireland; and a service of reflection and thanksgiving at St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast.
King Charles and Camilla met political leaders in Hillsborough, while the service in the cathedral was attended by religious, civic, and political leaders, including Prime Minister Liz Truss, Taoiseach Micheál Martin, and Irish President Michael D. Higgins.
In the television coverage, the theme of the service was identified as ‘a new beginning’ and in some ways, the optics and organisation of it bore that out. Here the ‘new’ Northern Ireland, one that is moving beyond its troubled past, was portrayed.
So King Charles entered the cathedral and greeted leaders of Northern Ireland’s faith communities (Christian and those of other faiths). Both Protestant and Catholic faith leaders took part in the service itself.
In what would have been unimaginable during most of the period of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, Sinn Féin’s Alex Maskey, the speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly (and a former republican prisoner), read from the New Testament. Catholic Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin led the prayers, giving thanks for the life of the Queen. It could be said that their participation embodied a type of reconciliation – or at least an appreciation of the Queen’s example of reconciliation.
Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh John McDowell delivered the sermon, making Queen Elizabeth’s contributions to reconciliation the central theme. He referred to her visits to the Republic of Ireland in 2011 and Northern Ireland in 2012.
In her 2011 visit, the first by a British monarch since Irish independence, Queen Elizabeth laid a wreath in Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance. She then bowed her head and stood solemnly with Irish President Mary McAleese in a moment of reflection. She also she began her remarks in Dublin Castle by speaking in Irish – to the visible shock and delight of President McAleese. At the time many were surprised by how much these gestures resonated across the island.
McDowell also recalled how in her 2012 visit she travelled to Enniskillen, where she crossed the street from St Macartin’s Church of Ireland Cathedral to St Michael’s Catholic Church – small but symbolically significant steps.
But that visit is best remembered for her four-second handshake with Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness. This has been interpreted as an example of forgiveness and reconciliation. In this it is significant that the royal family was bereaved during the Troubles, when Prince Philip’s uncle, Lord Mountbatten, died in an IRA attack in 1979.
Aspects of the meeting in Hillsborough also had religious overtones, with King Charles saying that his mother ‘never ceased to pray for the best of times for this place and its people’. Maskey read a message of condolence from the Assembly in which he praised the Queen but lamented the lack of leadership elsewhere – which could not help but be understood as a reference to Northern Ireland’s own stalled politics.
Taken together, these elements of King Charles and Camilla’s visit could be framed as an opportunity to take stock and prioritise reconciliation in our political and civic relationships.
One of the architectural features of St Anne’s is the ‘Spire of hope’, erected in 2007. The name was chosen because it seemed a time when Belfast, and Northern Ireland, was moving into a future of new beginnings.
The spire reminds me of a ray of sunlight, and brings to mind lyrics from Neil Hannon’s (The Divine Comedy) only song about the (ending of) the Troubles, Sunrise:
From the corner of my eye
A hint of blue in the black sky
A ray of hope, a beam of light
An end to thirty years of night
The church-bells ring, the children sing
“What is this strange and beautiful thing?”
It’s the sunrise
Can you see the sunrise?
I can see the sunrise
It’s the sun rising
Each day, each sunrise, is indeed a new beginning. Northern Ireland may have put on its best appearances for the royal visit, but reconciliation isn’t something that’s accomplished once and for all. It has to happen anew every day, day after day.