Northern Ireland Receives King Charles III With Grief And Bated Breath

·6-min read
King Charles and Camilla, Queen Consort arrive at Hillsborough Castle in Belfast. (Photo: NIALL CARSON via Getty Images)
King Charles and Camilla, Queen Consort arrive at Hillsborough Castle in Belfast. (Photo: NIALL CARSON via Getty Images)

King Charles and Camilla, Queen Consort arrive at Hillsborough Castle in Belfast. (Photo: NIALL CARSON via Getty Images)

When Queen Elizabeth II visited the Republic of Ireland in 2011, it was a moment of sensitivity and reconciliation, signalling the seismic shift towards longer-lasting peace between Ireland and the UK.

Beginning her speech in Irish, the Queen made every effort to unify two countries with a difficult and complex history.

“With the benefit of historical hindsight, we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all,” she told guests at a state dinner in Dublin Castle.

However, in this week of her death, as King Charles III ascends the British throne, the relationship between our islands, among those north and south of the Irish border, remains fractious.

As the King arrived at his official residence of Hillsborough Castle near Belfast on Tuesday – his fortieth trip to Northern Ireland – former Irish Taoiseach John Bruton told Sky News, “in many ways, intergovernmental relations between Britain and Ireland are much, much worse now, than they were when the Queen visited in [2011], and that needs to be repaired by the two governments”.

Brexit has maimed relations across the UK, but in particular has dug up dormant hostilities between communities in Northern Ireland.

King Charles arrives not only mourning his mother – a uniting figure within the UK by many accounts – but in the wake of sustained political tensions between the Republic and the UK over its land border and trade impacts arising from Brexit.

Despite this, the response among political parties to the sudden passing of the Queen has been one of particular sympathy and sensitivity – for the most part.

The Union Jack flies at full mast at Hillsborough Castle, Belfast, after the Proclamation of Accession of King Charles III. (Photo: Brian Lawless - PA Images via Getty Images)
The Union Jack flies at full mast at Hillsborough Castle, Belfast, after the Proclamation of Accession of King Charles III. (Photo: Brian Lawless - PA Images via Getty Images)

The Union Jack flies at full mast at Hillsborough Castle, Belfast, after the Proclamation of Accession of King Charles III. (Photo: Brian Lawless - PA Images via Getty Images)

On the Queen’s passing, Taoiseach Micheál Martin recalled “the warmth of the welcome she received from the public in Cork during her walkabout” in 2011.

Sinn Féin, which for many years during the Troubles was considered the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, sent “sincere condolences” to the King and party figures plan to attend events during the 10 days of mourning. Party president Mary Lou McDonald said she was “a powerful advocate and ally of those who believe in peace and reconciliation”.

However, the party stayed clear of Hillsborough Castle on Sunday for the proclamation of the King’s accession.

Ms McDonald said she did not attend as the ceremony was “intended for those whose political allegiance is to the British Crown”, and many senior party figures in Northern Ireland attended a rally in Belfast for victims of the Troubles instead.

No surprise there, though a far cry from past hostilities.

A notable outlier in the Republic was the left-wing People Before Profit party, who waited barely a day after the Queen’s passing to call for an end to monarchy.

While that’s not an unpopular sentiment in the Republic, and certainly among Republican communities in Northern Ireland, the reaction outside the political gauntlet has been less celebratory than you might expect – despite the Fenian blood running through our veins.

Monarchists in the Republic are few and far between, not least while we still live in the shadow of 800 years of British oppression – but while some like to joke about the Queen’s death – football hooligans chanting “Lizzy’s in a box” come to mind – her death has undoubtedly caused some upset.

Britain’s influence – and impact – on Ireland goes much further than Brexit ruining the fun for everyone. A cultural fascination with the royals has bled through the border over the years via British media. You’re unlikely to see many a Union Jack south of the border, but there is a palpable sense of loss for the woman who has been an influential figure on the world stage for 70 years.

Are there memes? Yes, Irish Twitter has been full of them and no column has enough lines to explain why the Queen might be reincarnated in the (misreported) birth of Trisha Paytas’s baby.

But underneath this social media frenzy, and the ability of Twitter to throw up jokes on just about any tragedy, is what can only be described as ambivalence towards the monarchy – particularly among young people.

Despite a respect for the duties the Queen carried out, there’s a quiet agnosticism about the institution that leaves many bewildered by the sense of grief washing over Britons in recent days.

But while King Charles ascends at a time of complex feelings about the Crown across the UK, not least among the Black community, he remains fiercely popular among Unionists in Northern Ireland.

Floral tributes left for the Queen outside Hillsborough Castle during the King's visit. (Photo: Charles McQuillan via Getty Images)
Floral tributes left for the Queen outside Hillsborough Castle during the King's visit. (Photo: Charles McQuillan via Getty Images)

Floral tributes left for the Queen outside Hillsborough Castle during the King's visit. (Photo: Charles McQuillan via Getty Images)

The meadow of flowers that greeted his arrival at Hillsborough on Tuesday reflects the devotion many have for the Queen – and their new King. A sea of smiling spectators, many of whom arrived after dawn to get a good spot, shouted “long live the King” as he entered his official residence.

“[King Charles] is a unifying figure among Irish people in the sense he is highly regarded in the Republic of Ireland,” Mr Bruton told Sky News.

“But also, as you can see, very highly regarded in Northern Ireland. Obviously there are divides in Northern Ireland where part of the community… doesn’t have quite the same attitude towards the Union.”

Obviously indeed. The reaction in the Republican community seems more akin to Glaswegians after Margaret Thatcher died. No more need be said.

And while there has been political consensus through the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, there’s hasn’t been a reconciliation between the two communities, Mr Bruton said.

“There is quite a deep level of polarisation in Northern Ireland, but I think the King, personally, can help create an atmosphere in which reconciliation becomes more possible.”

And Charles himself? Speaking at Hillsborough Castle on Tuesday, the King said that with the “shining example” of his mother’s duty to Northern Ireland, and “with God’s help, I take up my new duties resolved to seek the welfare of all the inhabitants of Northern Ireland”.

Ireland waits with bated breath to see if King Charles will indeed foster unity on this island – if, that is, people are listening to him at all.

Conor Capplis is a journalist with the Irish Examiner based in Cork.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.

Related...