King Charles pledges to ‘seek welfare of all’ in Northern Ireland | Northern Ireland

King Charles has resolved to “seek the welfare of all the inhabitants of Northern Ireland” in a formal response to the region’s assembly on his visit to Hillsborough Castle to meet the public and politicians.

After being greeted by crowds chanting “God save the King” at the gates of the royal residence in County Down, he made the pledge in response to a message of condolence from Alex Maskey, the nationalist speaker of the Northern Ireland assembly and a former IRA internee.

“My mother felt deeply, I know, the significance of the role she herself played in bringing together those whom history had separated and in extending a hand to make possible the healing of long-held hurts,” the King told Maskey, a Sinn Féin member of the Stormont parliament representing West Belfast.

“The Queen made a pledge to dedicate herself to her country and her people, and to maintain the principles of constitutional government. This promise she kept with steadfast faith. Now, with that shining example before me, and with God’s help, I take up my new duties resolved to seek the welfare of all the inhabitants of Northern Ireland.”

In an exchange in Hillsborough Castle’s throne room, Maskey said to the King: “We can of course never forget that over the last decades, too many have experienced tragedy and sorrow which will never leave them.”

He said the Queen’s “recognition of both British and Irish citizens, as well as the wider diversity of our community, was undoubtedly significant”.

Maskey added: “As we remember Queen Elizabeth’s positive leadership, let us all reflect that such leadership is still needed. And let us be honest with ourselves enough to recognise that too often that leadership has been lacking when [it] has been most required.”

Nationalist leaders played a major role in the events at Hillsborough on Tuesday after the King and Camilla, the Queen Consort, arrived by plane from Edinburgh, where Charles had stood vigil beside the Queen’s coffin at St Giles’ Cathedral.

Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin’s leader in Northern Ireland and first minister designate, was among a small group of political leaders to meet him in private.

Last month, she prompted anger among unionist leaders when, asked about the IRA’s armed struggle, she said: “I think at the time, there was no alternative.”

O’Neill added: “Thankfully, we have an alternative to conflict and that’s the Good Friday agreement, and that’s why it’s so precious to us all.”

The King also held a private meeting with the new Northern Ireland secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris.

Speaking before his meeting with the King, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the leader of the Democratic Unionist party, said: “It is an indication of how far we have travelled in Northern Ireland.

“I think this would not have been possible and it wouldn’t have happened during the dark days of our troubled past. Of course, we still have a long way to go, but it is a sign of political maturity.”

King Charles shakes hands with Michelle O’Neill
The King shakes hands with Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill next to speaker Alex Maskey. Photograph: Niall Carson/AFP/Getty Images

He said the King, like the Queen, would have a role in “promoting reconciliation”.

But in an indication of the political strains caused by post-Brexit trading arrangements, Jim Allister, the leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice party, said: “I will say that I trust that early in his reign, the UK’s sovereignty will be fully restored in respect of Northern Ireland.

“In other words, the protocol which treats Great Britain as a foreign country, which subjects us to foreign laws … that would be replaced by the restoration of full British sovereignty.”

Matthew O’Toole, the group leader in the Stormont parliament for the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour party, said he wanted to “recognise the role [the Queen] had in terms of building reconciliation on the island of Ireland and between the islands of Britain and Ireland”.

He added: “She had a major historical contribution to that … She didn’t have to do that, but she did. We are not a monarchist party and we aspire to constitutional change on this island, but there’s no contradiction with us aspiring to change and recognising the importance of this moment, particularly to people of a British and unionist background.”

After he arrived from George Best airport in Belfast, the King spent 10 minutes greeting crowds outside the gates of Hillsborough Castle.

He laughed and smiled as he and the Queen Consort accepted good wishes and bouquets of flowers, but one woman who offered condolences said he told her: “I don’t wish this on anybody.”

The King reportedly made the remark in reference to losing his mother after Ingrid Graham, 36, who owns a nail business, said to him: “I’m sorry for your loss, your majesty.”

Joyce Martin, 60, a retired electricity board worker, who spoke to him, said: “I feel very sorry for him. I know [his programme] is protocol, but it’s his mother and he needs to grieve.”

She said she told the King: “I loved your mother and said she was a great lady and gave all for her country right to the end. I said you are very welcome in Northern Ireland. He said thank you very much and gave me a very firm handshake.”

Catherine Rogers, 41, the leader of the 1st Hillsborough Scout Group’s Squirrels group, which gave Charles a drawing of a rainbow and a corgi made by six-year-old Luca, said: “I think he’s doing his duty. I lost my mum recently and I wouldn’t want all this media.”

A service of remembrance for the Queen was taking place later on Tuesday at St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast, giving the Irish and British governments the chance to set aside, temporarily at least, their post-Brexit divisions.

The prime minister, Liz Truss, is due to attend the service alongside the taoiseach, Micheál Martin, the Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, and Ireland’s president, Michael D Higgins.

The King will be trying to repeat the remarkable feat accomplished by his mother, in turning the monarchy into a force for unity in Northern Ireland.

The royal family had long been a fault line between unionists, who pledged fealty, and nationalists, who chafed at being trapped, as they saw it, in a British state under an unwanted sovereign.

The 1998 Good Friday agreement paved the way for the Queen’s landmark visit to the Republic of Ireland in 2011, when she spoke Irish and made gestures of reconciliation.

Her handshake with Martin McGuinness in 2012, followed by the then Prince Charles shaking the hand of Gerry Adams in 2015, consolidated the royal family’s role as bridge-builders.

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