Old lags, oh the stories they can tell. The visit of Queen Elizabeth generated something of a feel-good factor in Belfast yesterday. There was a good humour about the whole event which was enhanced by the fact that Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness were both former guests at what was one of her majesty's most notorious prisons.
The Crum, as it was known, housed hundreds of republican and loyalist paramilitaries during the Troubles – not to mention politicians of different stripes including former DUP leader and first minister Ian Paisley, and Eamon de Valera, a long time before that.
Protests against the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement landed Robinson in Crumlin Road jail for three short periods, while McGuinness spent five to six weeks there in 1976 when he was on remand facing an IRA membership charge.
Yet yesterday, together, they were showing off the refurbished and decommissioned old Victorian prison, now a very popular visitor attraction, to Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. “She could not have two more experienced guides to take her around the premises,” Robinson said.
The First Minister said he didn’t suffer unduly during his time there, although sharing a cell with two fellow DUP councillors “who weren’t slight sleepers” was a bit of a trial.
He also learned that if you were going to prison in order to make a stand for unionism, don't bring money with you. "On the first occasion, having refused to pay a fine, I was picked up by the police and brought here," he recalled to The Irish Times. "I should have been here for a week, but after the first night they threw me out because I had money in my pockets. Which they took off me when I arrived and paid my fine for me – and threw me out on the street."
McGuinness said he didn’t raise his period in prison with the queen and she didn’t mention it to him. “Our conversation was totally recrimination-free.”
It all served to prove that, contrary to Margaret Thatcher's assertion, Northern Ireland is not as British as Finchley. A First Minister and Deputy First Minister reminiscing about the times they did porridge is not the sort of conversation you would imagine having with British prime minister David Cameron or Scottish first minister Alex Salmond after they had entertained Queen Elizabeth.
And McGuinness continues to be mightily impressed with the queen. On Monday night at Hillsborough Castle, he chatted with her privately for almost 15 minutes, after which he praised her passion for the peace process, her commitment to reconciliation and her desire to help put decades of violence and hatred behind everyone. After their second encounter in two days, he offered similar praise while adding: “She is a very easy person to speak to; she has a very nice personality.”
On such a day you couldn’t help but briefly wonder, what was it all about? But then you remember the Twelfth of July and that very soon this general part of north Belfast almost certainly is going to be thrown back into communal strife over the old issues of parades and flags and identity.
Feelgood followed by feel-bad.