Sinn Fein deputy First Minister acknowledges impact of royal family

Rebecca Black, PA
·5-min read

The Sinn Fein deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland has acknowledged the “significant impact” of the royal family in terms of reconciliation.

Michelle O’Neill also explained why she made a public statement on the Duke of Edinburgh’s passing at the age of 99 on Friday as the “right thing to do” as deputy First Minister.

First Minister Arlene Foster said she welcomed that Ms O’Neill “had moved to show respect to the royal family and the nation as a whole”.

Duke of Edinburgh death
Naomi Armstrong-Cotter and her daughters Lillie, six, (left) and Essie, five, arrive at the gates of Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland, to lay flowers (Brian Lawless/PA)

Stormont parties extended their condolences to the Queen and royal family during a special sitting of the Assembly on Monday.

Mrs Foster described the duke as a “true intergenerational legacy to our youth, our United Kingdom and the world’s environment”.

The DUP leader welcomed the “respectful way” in which the Speaker and parties in Northern Ireland have responded to the passing of the duke.

“I think the unity of spirit has been evident so let us all harness and channel that spirit moving ahead as the Assembly and Executive work through the very real and significant challenges that face us,” she told MLAs.

“The Duke of Edinburgh demonstrated the desire for a better future, and particularly so for our younger generation.

“So let us embrace his legacy to positive effect as we all go about the job of seeing Northern Ireland reaching its full potential in the new century ahead of us.”

Ms O’Neill told MLAs of “significant interventions” over the last two decades by the royal family to “assist in the building of relationships between Britain and Ireland”.

“It’s appropriate this contribution to the advancement of peace and reconciliation is rightly recognised,” she said.

SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon said her thoughts are “particularly with the Queen” on the loss of her husband of 73 years.

“To wake up without your steadfast companion must be heart-breaking – and for many of us must be unimaginable,” she said.

Michelle O'Neill (Rebecca Black/PA)
Michelle O’Neill (Rebecca Black/PA)

Ms Mallon also referred to “uncharitable and mean-spirited online commentary about Philip”, saying it “diminishes us all”.

“While across this House we hold different views on monarchy, his was a life of public service to a family that he clearly cherished and people who held him in the highest regard,” she said.

“This will be a difficult week for many in our community.

“It is important that we all respect that and continue to work together to heal the divisions of our past and build a more united community.”

Ulster Unionist Party leader Steve Aiken expressed his and his party’s sympathy to the Queen on her “profound loss”.

He thanked the recognition of the loss made by Ms O’Neill and members of the SDLP.

“May I state how welcome your remarks were and whilst we may disagree on much, those are welcome sentiments.

“I appreciate your sympathy and reaching out to those of us who hold the union and the monarchy dear,” he said.

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said the duke had led a “remarkable life”.

She noted how he left his naval career to support the Queen when she became monarch.

“He demonstrated in practice what it means to be a supportive husband to a powerful woman,” she told MLAs.

“I pray that the 73 years of happy memories and that life well lived will be able to bring some comfort to Her Majesty the Queen and to the wider family circle and all those who loved him in the difficult days and months ahead.”

Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister paid tribute to the Duke of Edinburgh as “such a rock and such a support for so many years” and expressed his condolences to the Queen and royal family.

He also challenged Sinn Fein over the murder of the duke’s uncle Lord Mountbatten by the IRA in 1979.

“Today would have been a good day for the Republican movement to unequivocally say sorry,” he said.

On Friday, Ms O’Neill made a statement of condolence to the royal family while wearing black outside Belfast City Hall.

On Monday she said the Queen and the royal family have made “significant interventions”, including her visit to Dublin.

Lord Mountbatten (PA)
Lord Mountbatten (PA)

The Sinn Fein vice president also said the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh’s meeting with Martin McGuinness in Belfast “marked a very important step on our journey”, acknowledging they had been directly impacted in the Troubles.

The IRA killed Philip’s uncle Lord Louis Mountbatten in 1979.

“The Queen and Prince Philip and their family were directly impacted by the conflict, like too many families here, and I think that, like every family, it is regrettable that any family has endured any kind of sorrow or pain as a result of bereavement due to the conflict,” Ms O’Neill told the BBC.

“I do think that you have to take from the example which they themselves set, even though they did endure personal loss, the royal family has set about working towards the advancement of peace and reconciliation, and they demonstrated that with their words and deeds over recent years.”

Duke of Edinburgh death
Maise Cairns, aged 18 months, at the gates of Hillsborough Castle during a 41-round gun salute following the announcement of the death of the Duke of Edinburgh (Brian Lawless/PA)

Ms O’Neill added: “I’m elected to be the deputy First Minister for all, joint head of government for all people, so therefore I recognise the sense of loss that will be felt by many people across our community, particularly those of unionist tradition or those who have a British identity.

“I just think it’s really, really important in terms of respect for each other, for two different communities between our islands that I would speak in the way in which I have.”

Ms O’Neill said she has not had any negative response to the move.

The Duke of Edinburgh (left), the Queen and Martin McGuinness (right) at a Co-operation Ireland reception at Crosby Hall in London (Jeff Spicer/PA)
The Duke of Edinburgh (left), the Queen and Martin McGuinness (right) at a Co-operation Ireland reception at Crosby Hall in London (Jeff Spicer/PA)

Mrs Foster responded: “I think that Sinn Fein learned from the mistake that they made in 2011, when Her Majesty visited the Republic of Ireland and they decided to boycott that visit.

“I think they learned from that and in 2012 Her Majesty shook hands with the then deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.”