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 offered a sharp reminder of the country’s persistent, complicated and, at times, bloody political realities.
BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) — It’s less than ten minutes walk from the Falls Road to the Shankill Road in Northern Ireland’s capital, where Catholics and Protestants still live in segregated enclaves.
But to hear people in these adjoining neighborhoods explain their almost diametrically opposite views of the British monarchy, it might as well be 1,000 miles.
And 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 offered a sharp reminder of the country’s persistent, complicated and, at times, bloody political realities.
On the street residents call The Shankill — center of a Protestant neighborhood with a long history of loyalty to the crown — British flags fluttered over shops and from light poles. At the foot of a giant mural of a young Elizabeth II proclaiming her “the people’s monarch,” many proud to be her subjects came bearing flowers and notes of emotional farewell.
“We swore our allegiance to the queen and she stuck by us,” said Jacqueline Humphries, 58, once a soldier in the Ulster Defence Regiment, established by the British Army to police Northern Ireland during the decades of sectarian violence known as The Troubles. “I think Charles will do just as good a job. She trained him well.”
Not half a mile away on the Falls Road — the nationalist stronghold that served as base for the Irish Republican Army and its decades-long guerrilla campaign against British rule — those heading to work Tuesday brushed off any suggestion that Charles’ visit could validate the crown’s claim to Northern Ireland.
“They can believe that, but we still believe we will get a united Ireland,” said Paul Walker, 55, walking past a 3-story-high mural of Bobby Sands, an IRA militant who died while on a hunger strike in prison in 1981.
Charles is “not our king. Bobby Sands was our king here,” said 52-year-old Bobby Jones. “Queen never done nothing for us. Never did. None of the royals do.”
Walker and others said Queen Elizabeth II had earned a measure of respect, if never affection, for her decision in 2012 to shake hands with Martin McGuinness, the former IRA commander who went on to serve as Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister. But Charles is unwelcome.
“He won’t be up here much. We don’t have a place for Charles,” said a man named Christy, 61, who like others declined to provide his full name, pointing to Belfast’s fading, but brutally memorable, record of retribution on both sides.
The new king walked a delicate line Tuesday, thanking Northern Ireland officials for their condolences and praise of his mother for her efforts to foster reconciliation.
The queen, he said, “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.”
It’s not clear, though, if Charles will benefit from goodwill earned by his mother. She had decades to build a reputation as a steadfast leader even in the most difficult of times; not so, her son, who some see as aloof. And nowhere else in the lands that make up this less than United Kingdom is the divide over 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 a part of the United Kingdom.
The shaky peace exploded in August 1969 with sectarian violence after protests by the Catholic minority for civil rights. The British Army sent in forces, ostensibly to contain the violence and protect Catholics.
“Army in Control Here For At Least Four Months,” warned the front page of The Irish News, now displayed in a museum of IRA history just off the Falls Road.
Instead, The Troubles lasted nearly 30 years, resulting in the deaths of more than 3,000 people.
A few minutes in either neighborhood is all it takes 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 went running the other way because you were guilty before you innocent,” said Damian Burns, a postal worker, walking to work past the offices of Sinn Fein, the political party long affiliated with the IRA that is now the largest in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government.
The Sinn Fein bookstore onsite sells posters with a portrait of Sands over the slogan: “England Get Out of Ireland.”
Over on the Shankill, Humphries, now a housing assistance counselor, recalled that when The Troubles started she was living in an area mixed with both Protestants and Catholics. After joining the British-allied military she received death threats from the Irish National Liberation Army, forcing a move to the loyalist neighborhood where she has lived ever since. Others on both sides also moved to be near those like them, and the city became even more divided.
The royal family was not immune to the 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 Falls Road and the Shankill remain divided from one another by a “Peace Line” — high walls with steel gates that are still closed each evening.
Charles, unwanted by some here and unproven to others, will have to thread his way carefully through the volatility. But it could offer valuable lessons – at least in what not to do – for the new monarch. In Scotland, where a referendum on independence from Britain was narrowly defeated in 2014, rhetoric remains heated and officials are pushing for a follow-up vote. In Wales, too, some people bridle at being kept under London’s control.
Residents of Belfast will be watching closely, regardless of their allegiances.
On the Falls Road of 25 or 30 years ago, the queen was vilified as a symbol of British oppression, said Walker, who is confident the two Irelands will eventually be united.
He won’t change his mind about that, he said, but even with a bitter past, he’s become more willing to see the queen, who was 96, as more than a foe.
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 the head of military forces.”
AP National Writer Adam Geller is on assignment in the United Kingdom covering the queen’s death. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/adgeller