BELFAST (Reuters) – Loyalists laid flowers near a huge mural of a young Queen Elizabeth in a fiercely British corner of west Belfast, reflecting on what they saw as a glorious past and what that they feared was an uncertain future.
A few hundred yards away, through steel and concrete ‘peace walls’, many Irish nationalists reacted to the death of a woman they once saw as a symbol of British oppression with indifference or, at most, polite sympathy.
Elizabeth was queen for 70 of Northern Ireland’s 100-year history and for three decades of the ‘Troubles’ in which more than 3,000 people died in sectarian fighting.
Opinions on her have always been as divided as the territory. Reflections on his death have touched on how much Northern Ireland has changed since its heyday and how much the role of the crown could be diminished under his son’s rule.
Loyalists, who want to keep the region under British rule, remain among the royal family’s most devoted subjects.
“It’s part of our culture here… the monarchy is a big, big thing. And the queen is the monarchy, as far as we’re concerned,” said Bill Martin, 75, who walked 30 miles to take pictures of the royal sanctuary with an iPad.
“He was a real mainstay for the UK. I don’t think Charles is close to that. He has no interest in Northern Ireland,” he said.
“THE ANXIETY OF THE UNKNOWN”
The Queen’s death comes at a difficult time for Loyalists and their more moderate Unionist allies.
Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army, horrified many loyalists in May by winning the most seats in the regional parliament for the first time.
The party has said a referendum on Northern Ireland joining a united Irish state should be held within a decade as demographics and Brexit antipathy bolster support for the plan, which, according to polls, is the most popular among young people.
For Loyalists, the Queen was the last direct link to both the Empire and victory in the Second World War, central to their identity.
It was also seen as a constant amid perceived betrayals by British governments – from the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement which gave Dublin a say in Northern Ireland affairs, to abandonment by the Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2019 of the pledge never to accept an Irish Sea. trade border.
“I think there is anxiety about the unknown, but that’s normal,” said Doug Beattie, leader of the second-largest unionist party, the Ulster Unionists, speaking next to ‘A painting of the Queen in her constituency office in South West Belfast.
“The Queen seemed to be the glue that held the whole union together, the four nations. So there was always that feeling…if you take that glue away, you get a sense of maybe, maybe the things are weaker,” he said. .
“But I’m not necessarily sure that’s necessarily the case. With a new king, there could be continuity. We just have to wait and see.”
REACHING THE NATIONALISTS
A powerful symbol of union, the Queen has in her later years become a major force for reconciliation with her Irish nationalist enemies, with her state visit to Ireland in 2011 the first by a monarch in nearly a century of ‘independence.
Two milestones on this trip transformed his relationship with Ireland: laying a wreath in honor of Irish people killed fighting for independence from Britain and using a few words in Irish in his speech at Dublin Castle .
“There was a lot taken away from the Queen’s visit in 2011,” said Brian Feeney, an Irish nationalist columnist. The Queen’s role as bogeyman for nationalists is long gone, he said.
The Queen, whose cousin Lord Louis Mountbatten was killed by the Irish Republican Army in 1979, went one step further a year after her state visit by shaking hands with IRA commander Martin McGuinness, then head of the Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland.
The gesture ‘almost cemented the peace process’ 14 years after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement largely ended the violence, said Peter Sheridan, head of peacebuilding organization Co-operation Ireland who organized the event and was a few meters away when the two men shook hands.
“Where could you (go) after this in terms of the highest level endorsement of peace and reconciliation?” he said.
While some Irish nationalists in bars reportedly cheered the news of the Queen’s death and fireworks were heard in Belfast, the reaction in nationalist areas was relatively muted, with some saying the Queen was only irrelevant and others that she was little more than a celebrity.
Sinn Fein called on supporters to be respectful and said they looked forward to working with Charles.
“There are still people who are happy that she is gone… but no celebration like there was when (former British Prime Minister) Margaret Thatcher died” in 2013, said Matthew Mullan, a 19-year-old walking the Nationalist Falls Road in West Belfast.
To most nationalists she is now seen as a normal person, he said, “someone’s mum, aunt, grandmother, you know what I mean”.
(Additional reporting by Padraic Halpin in Dublin and Clodagh Kilcoyne in Belfast; editing by Andrew Heavens)