In Northern Ireland, praise for the monarchy rivals disdain

BELFAST, Northern Ireland – It’s less than a ten-minute walk from Falls Road to Shankill Road in Northern Ireland’s capital, where Catholics and Protestants still live in separate enclaves.

But to hear residents of these neighboring neighborhoods explain their almost diametrically opposed views on the British monarchy, it might as well be 1,000 miles.

So, as King Charles III arrived in Northern Ireland for the first visit since his mother’s death elevated him to the throne, the voices of Belfast were powerful reminders of the country’s lingering, complicated and sometimes bloody political realities.

On the street locals call The Shankill – center of a Protestant neighborhood with a long history of loyalty to the crown – British flags flew above shops and lampposts. At the foot of a giant mural of a young Elizabeth II proclaiming her “the people’s monarch”, many people proud to be her subjects came bearing flowers and moving farewell notes.

“We swore allegiance to the Queen and she stood by us,” said Jacqueline Humphries, 58, a former soldier in the Ulster Defense Regiment, set up by the British army to police Northern Ireland for decades of sectarian violence known as The Troubles. “I think Charles will do his job just as well. She trained him well.”

Less than half a mile away on Falls Road – the nationalist stronghold that served as a base for the Irish Republican Army and its decades-long guerrilla campaign against British rule – those walking to work on Tuesday were dismissed any suggestion that Charles’ visit could validate the crown’s claim to Northern Ireland.

‘They may believe that, but we still believe we will get a united Ireland,’ Paul Walker, 55, said as he passed a 3-storey mural of Bobby Sands, an IRA activist who died in a strike from starvation in prison to 1981.

Charles is “not our king. Bobby Sands was our king here,” said Bobby Jones, 52. “Queen never did anything for us. Never did. No royals do.”

Walker and others said Queen Elizabeth II had won a measure of respect, even affection, for her decision in 2012 to shake hands with Martin McGuinness, the former IRA commander who was later Deputy Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. But Charles is not welcome.

“He won’t be here often. We don’t have room for Charles,” said a man named Christy, 61, who like others declined to give his full name, pointing out the disappearance, but brutally memorable, of the Belfast record. punishment on both sides.

The new king toed a delicate line on Tuesday, thanking Northern Ireland officials for their condolences and praising his mother for her efforts to foster reconciliation.

The Queen, he said, “felt deeply, I know, the importance of the role she herself played in bringing together those whom history had separated and in reaching out to make possible the healing of long-standing wounds”.

It’s unclear, however, if Charles will benefit from the goodwill his mother has won. She’s had decades to build a reputation as a steadfast leader, even in the toughest of times. this is not the case, his son, whom some consider distant. And nowhere else in the lands that make up this less than the UK is the division of the crown so fierce.

Most of Ireland gained independence from Britain in 1921 after a guerrilla war. But Northern Ireland, where a Protestant majority favored Britain, remained part of the United Kingdom.

The fragile peace exploded in August 1969 with sectarian violence after protests by the Catholic minority for civil rights. The British Army sent in forces, apparently to contain the violence and protect the Catholics.

“The army has been in command here for at least four months,” warned the front page of The Irish News, now displayed in a museum of IRA history just off Falls Road.

Instead, the unrest lasted nearly 30 years, resulting in the deaths of more than 3,000 people.

A few minutes in either neighborhood is enough to unearth memories of the violence and the gaping divide over the role of the British government.

“Once you saw the Brits, once you saw the police, you ran the other way because you were guilty before you were innocent,” said Damian Burns, a postman, as he walked past the offices of Sinn Fein, the long-affiliated IRA political party that is now the largest in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government.

The on-site Sinn Fein bookshop sells posters with a portrait of Sands on the slogan: “England Get Out of Ireland”.

Over on the Shankill, Humphries, now a housing assistance counsellor, recalled that when the Troubles started she was living in an area mixed with both Protestants and Catholics. After joining the British Allied Army, she received death threats from the Irish National Liberation Army, forcing her to move to the Loyalist neighborhood where she has lived ever since. Others on both sides also moved to be closer to their fellows, and the city became even more divided.

The royal family was not immune to violence. In 1979, the IRA assassinated Lord Louis Mountbatten, a cousin of the Queen and mentor to Charles, detonating a bomb planted aboard his fishing boat. Three others also died.

The Troubles finally ended with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. But all these years later, the Road to the Falls and the Shankill remain separated from each other by a “peace line” – high walls with steel doors that are always closed every night.

Charles, undesirable by some here and unproven by others, will have to carefully navigate his way through the volatility. But it could offer valuable lessons – at least on what not to do – for the new monarch. In Scotland, where a referendum on independence from Britain was narrowly defeated in 2014, the rhetoric remains heated and officials are pushing for a follow-up vote. In Wales too, some people are reluctant to be kept under London control.

Belfast residents will be watching closely, regardless of their allegiances.

On the Falls Road of 25 or 30 years ago, the Queen was reviled as a symbol of British oppression, said Walker, who is confident the two Irelands will eventually unite.

He won’t change his mind about it, he said, but even with a bitter past he became more willing to see the Queen, who was 96, as more than an enemy.

She was, after all, someone’s grandmother.

“It’s always in the back of your mind who these people are,” he said, “and not just that they’re leading the military forces.”

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AP National Writer Adam Geller is on assignment in the UK to cover the Queen’s death. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/adgeller