No Irish howlers, but Prince Philip’s body language with McGuinness told a story
The IRA had murdered Philip’s uncle Louis Mountbatten. Yet the duke did his duty
Body language: Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth in Northern Ireland in 2012. Photograph: Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty
Prince Philip, the duke of Edinburgh, who has died aged 99, is said to have coined the word “dontopedalogy” when speaking to the British General Dental Council in 1960. He described it as the “science of opening your mouth and putting your foot in it, which I’ve practised for many years”.
In fact, whenever he dropped his latest clanger some Fleet Street papers delighted in dusting down and republishing their lists of “Prince Philip’s 100 biggest howlers”.
Curiously, though, although he made scores of gaffes on his trips around the world with and without his wife, Queen Elizabeth II, he appears to have been relatively solecism-free during numerous royal visits to Northern Ireland and one royal visit to the Republic. Somehow in Ireland he curbed his noted tendency to bluntness and irascibility.
The duke did his duty, standing with his wife and going through the protocols of engaging with Martin McGuinness and the then DUP first minister, Peter Robinson
Or perhaps those of the queen’s loyal and occasionally not so loyal subjects he encountered over those decades were so discreet that they decided not to tout on him for any verbal indiscretions he committed on Irish soil.
The furthest publicly he went was some very light banter, remarking to one woman who told him the glass in her hand contained water, “I’d say it’s a double gin,” or telling a man who remarked that this was his second time meeting him, to “head back to the end of the queue and you can come around and meet me for a third time”. Hardly the stuff of tabloid headlines.
But there was one event when he could have been forgiven for being outspoken. That was when he met Martin McGuinness at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast in 2012 for the historic first handshake between the then Sinn Féin deputy first minister and Queen Elizabeth.
In July 1979 the IRA murdered Prince Philip’s uncle Lord Louis Mountbatten in Mullaghmore, Co Sligo, when it detonated a bomb aboard his Shadow V boat. Also killed in that attack were the teenagers Paul Maxwell, from Enniskillen, and Nicholas Knatchbull, as well as his grandmother Lady Brabourne.
Prince Philip also was related to Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, who with his wife, Alexandra, and their five children, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia and Alexei, were wiped out by Bolshevik troops in 1918. In 1967 he remarked that he would “like to go to Russia very much – although the bastards murdered half my family”.
Some such similar utterance might have been expected from him about his meeting McGuinness, considering that the republican leader may have been party to the planning of the Mullaghmore bombing. But, no, the duke did his duty, standing with his wife and going through the protocols of engaging with McGuinness and the then DUP first minister, Peter Robinson, with President Michael D Higgins also overseeing proceedings.
Any misgivings he may have entertained he kept within the privacy of his family and friends.
But there was one brief moment when McGuinness went towards Prince Philip as if to engage in conversation with him, but the duke almost shied away from him, quickly making his way to be at the side of the queen.
That body language told its own story, as did the body language of McGuinness, who appeared briefly put out, although he quickly masked any annoyance he may have felt. But, as one observer noted, it could hardly have been described as a clear-cut snub: Prince Philip had a job to do, and he did it.
Again Prince Philip was the supportive husband when he accompanied Queen Elizabeth for her historic first state visit to the Republic, in May 2011. That four-day tour, which included laying a wreath to the dead of 1916 at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin, as well as a trip to Croke Park, was considered a high point in exorcising some historic demons and strengthening British-Irish relations.
The main spotlight, of course, was on the queen, but Prince Philip garnered some coverage, and sympathy, for the yearning way he eyed a perfect pint of plain when he visited the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin – a pint that for peculiar protocol reasons (all that free advertising, perhaps?) he could not savour, at least not at that particular time.
Over the years there was some comment and publicity about his relationship with the late Sacha Hamilton, the duchess of Abercorn, whose family seat is at Barons Court, near Newtownstewart in Co Tyrone. He was a visitor to Barons Court ,with both having a shared interest in the work of the Swiss psychiatrist and psychologist Carl Jung.
According to a Daily Telegraph obituary of the duchess in 2018 she told the author Gyles Brandreth that Prince Philip was a “very special man” and that theirs was a “passionate friendship, but the passion was in the ideas”.
Prince Philip was known as a man with a short fuse, but on his visits to Northern Ireland, where frequently literal short fuses applied, he appeared aware that he had to be guarded in his comments and in his actions. Equally on those visits he never publicly exposed the sense of irritation and frustration and sometimes barely suppressed fury that was part of his character.
In essence he was the dutiful prince consort to his wife. That applied from their first visit to Northern Ireland together, in May 1949, when Elizabeth still was a princess, to four years later, when they travelled again to the North, this time on a coronation visit, and on all future trips.
The majority of visits were from the peace-process period of the 1990s right through the millennium and into the early decades of the 21st century. Some of those trips also were related to his self-development Duke of Edinburgh Awards, which thousands of students, both Catholic and Protestant, have completed in Northern Ireland since they were created, in 1956.
Over those many years Prince Philip visited all six counties in Northern Ireland, taking in hamlets, villages, towns and cities, and meeting many thousands of people alongside his wife. What was noteworthy about that multitude of engagements is that, unlike in some other countries and at some other gatherings, he did nothing, intentionally or unintentionally, to upstage his wife or upset British-Irish or unionist-nationalist relations.