The day I dined with future king
IT WAS in the early 1990s. Sir Jonathan Stephens of the NIO, knowing my admiration for Prince Charles and the excellent work of his Prince’s Trust, arranged for an invitation to be sent to me to join HRH at Hillsborough Castle for dinner.
This was no run-of-the-mill event, where the predictable ‘great and the good’, used to moving in such auspicious company, came together.
This was to be an opportunity for Prince Charles to meet ordinary people from the various polarised communities throughout Northern Ireland.
At that time, in my role as Chief Probation Officer, I was in regular contact with Sally McErlean, one of the amazing founding members of the West Belfast Parents Youth Support Group – a voluntary organisation set up by ordinary parents in west Belfast dedicated to keeping their teenage children out of crime and protected from the scourge of kneecapping or banishment.
Sally’s organisation and mine worked closely together to devise schemes which might keep the young people away from crime, off the war-torn streets of west Belfast, and safe from harm.
Anyhow, I discovered that Sally had also had an invitation to meet the future monarch. And how will you get there I enquired? ‘Sure one of the boys will drop me down,’ said she.
There was no way ‘one of the boys’ would get through the necessary security ring around the castle that evening – so I offered a lift and off we went, Sally in her customary way determined to make the most of every opportunity to promote the good work of the people of west Belfast.
And what a night it was. Sally, unused to hobnobbing with royalty (as if I was), determined that she would stick close to me and do what I did. But her nervousness and everyone else’s nerves were quickly dissipated by the charm and humility of our host.
Initially, seated on his left at dinner and in general conversation we discovered that he was good craic and the antithesis of the snobby aristocrat. But the impressive performance came when the conversation opened to a more serious topic and to include the whole table.
The problems of young people in Northern Ireland in the 1990s, and possible solutions to those problems, were articulated and pondered upon. Sally and Hugh Smyth (from a Shankill perspective) gave a superb masterclass on the causes of youth crime and how changes could be made to raise aspirations and create more opportunities. Education and employment possibilities featured strongly.
HRH was rapt, listening carefully, clarifying frequently and also enjoying the repartee. This was not a performance put on to impress his future subjects, rather this was a person genuinely caring and eager to learn from experts, willing to embrace innovation, to eschew stereotyping and to use his (limited) power and influence to bring about change.
I believe that he learnt a lot that night. As did we.
So, republican by inclination as I am, I have no fears for a future Great Britain and Northern Ireland bereft of a beloved queen. In my humble opinion, His Majesty the King is more than well up to the job.
Hatred is taught but it can be untaught
I WAS fortunate enough to meet Her Majesty the Queen on a number of occasions, all of which were focussed on building and maintaining positive community relations in Northern Ireland, the island of Ireland and across these islands.
On one occasion, she asked me, with genuine concern, whether community relations were improving in Northern Ireland. I assured her that they were. She was concerned for all of us, whatever our background or constitutional preference.
She wanted us to live in peace in our shared home place.
The Queen’s visit to the Republic of Ireland was obviously important to her, as she felt it was a relationship that needed to be healed. She was prepared to show the necessary leadership to help that process. She was a peacemaker, who was aware of the difculties, but sought solutions to overcome them.
In taking this approach she inspired many people. These instincts came from a duty to serve for the benet of the people. I’ve met King Charles III too and he holds the same values, while we see them too in his son William, the new Prince of Wales. In Northern Ireland this summer, we’ve witnessed too many negative stories about community relations.
Fortunately, there is another, much more positive story, which is not always reflected in the media.
When the Queen asked me whether things were improving, I told her that people were getting on with their lives and concerning themselves with the issues that really mattered.
They wanted our problems to be addressed, but recognised that they lived in a beautiful place, with great people, many of whom were building relationships and facing up to hatred.
The same is true today. Hatred is taught and it can be untaught.
In Dublin in 2011, Her Majesty said: “With the benefit of hindsight we can all see things that we would wish we had done differently or not at all.”
These were such wise words, encouraging reflection by all of us. During her reign she helped move an empire to a commonwealth of friends.
We should have more courage in the strength of that argument and challenge those who promote other, less constructive narratives.
Time for new British royal standard
WITH the death of Queen Elizabeth in Britain and the succession of Charles to the throne, it is an ideal opportunity for the Irish government to request that the harp, Ireland’s national symbol, be removed from the British royal standard.
There is time for that to happen before Charles is crowned king. New stamps, coins, bank notes, letter boxes, the British anthem and other symbols are being changed to reflect the change of monarch.
The British people would be open to a relatively small change to the royal standard as it would better reflect the changed status of relations between Britain and Ireland.
As the Duchy of Cornwall is one of the royal titles closely associated with the British crown, perhaps a symbol of Cornwall could be inserted into the royal standard to replace the harp of Ireland?
It is time for quiet but firm diplomacy from the government of Ireland on this matter.
SEANÁN Ó COISTÍN
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