Visit of Prince Charles: The long road to reconciliation

The stilted, carefully choreographed encounter is genuinely another step forward


The visit by Prince Charles to Mullaghmore and the warmth of his reception by local people speak volumes about how far we have all moved, the British, this State and its citizens, and the Republican movement. And also the countless individuals, family, friends and locals, touched by the assassination of Lord Louis Mountbatten and three others 36 years ago on August 27th, 1979.

The deeply personal dimension of the prince’s emotional pilgrimage to the place where his much-loved great uncle, “the grandfather I never had”, was murdered gave a different, and more profound dimension to another historic and welcome act of mutual reconciliation between these islands.

“For peace comes dropping slow”, he reminded his Sligo audience in Yeats’s words . Painfully slow. The memories of those who returned for the first time in over three decades, and of locals who recalled the day and their involvement in a dreadful aftermath, were still vivid, their personal wounds still raw.

But all without exception nevertheless spoke the language of forgiveness, of the need to move on and not be trapped by the past, as Mary McAleese put it “we all know what the past was like ... it was not a pretty landscape”. Prince Charles spoke, echoing his mother four years ago, of the need to “endeavour to become the subjects of our history and not its prisoner”.

We’re not there yet. The ball and chain of history still weighs heavy on our politics, not least on the politics of commemoration, of both 1916 , as parties scramble to claim the mantle, and, differently these days and thankfully less polarisingly, of that of the first World War.

And it weighed heavy on the symbolism of that royal handshake with Gerry Adams – between the colonel-in-chief of the Parachute Regiment and the leader of the movement which killed Mountbatten – and on what we know of the conversation afterwards that will have left unsaid as much as was said. Martin McGuinness’s “we didn’t ask for any apologies”, an admission of as much.

Still, the stilted, carefully choreographed encounter is genuinely another step forward, above all another important implicit acknowledgement of a sort that that sometimes still comes hard in the North, that both communities have suffered and lost loved ones, and that neither side has a monopoly on virtue.

Unspoken differences were reflected in a small way in a protest against the prince in Ballymurphy, west Belfast, notable, however, precisely for the paucity of its numbers. Prince Charles’s visits to both the west and the east of the city, flashpoints included, also reflected how, despite a political deadlock in the NI Executive, in the community peace is slowly but surely “dropping”.