In Prince Charles’ visit there is richer significance than a handshake with Gerry Adams

It was probably inevitable but the UK coverage of Prince Charles’ handshake with Gerry Adams  exaggerated its significance.  The heavy lifting for reconciliation was done by the royals when the Queen and Prince Philip shook hands with Martin McGuiness in the Lyric Theatre, opening the door to a filmed audience as DFM last year. Prince Philip’s handshake is worth emphasising. Mountbatten supervised his early upbringing when he came to England to be educated when his parents split up, his mother being Mountbatten’s sister. So that was a mighty gesture on his part.  It was noticeable at the time that Philip didn’t linger even though McGuinness manoeuvred round him as if he hoped to catch a word.

Still, McGuinness has always seemed to strike a more gracious note that the ponderous  insistence on equality of suffering  from Gerry Adams. There will be at least as many, probably many more, who reject Adams’ claim to champion army victims of the Troubles as oppose the visit of Charles as colonel –in chief of the Parachute Regiment . This after all is very old news after his innumerable  regular visits to Northern Ireland.

Sinn Fein gained nothing from their official boycott of the Queen’s triumphantly successful  state visit ( breached by the Sinn Fein mayor of Cashel). By asking for a 15 minute private meeting  Adams seemed to be trying to put  right a political mistake.

The real impact of the visit is Mullaghamore and the service of reconciliation at the Yeats parish church. With his first hand memories of Mullaghamore at the time, Gerry Moriarty’s reporting is the most evocative so far.

This visit sets a seal in a poignant and personal  way on the well established  reconciliation between Britain and Ireland.

The complicated network of establishment relationships  and symbolism is exposed. Mountbatten the last of Queen Victoria’s grandchildren to be photographed with her, meeting a violent  end  in the  harbour of a tiny Irish village. The harbour itself built by the  landlord of  Classiebawn and ancestor of Mountbatten’s wife Edwina ,Lord Palmerston the prime minster of Empire and gunboat diplomacy, and Mountbatten, the  last viceroy of India who made the biggest single  move to dismantle that Empire. WB Yeats, dreaming of the Anglo-irish  rebel sisters of the Gore Booth family who  still to this day supply leading  diplomats  to the British Foreign Office.

The ambivalence of Yeats’ “Easter 1916” still  is still with us.  Undeniably things were “ changed, changed utterly.” But  in Yeats’s self questioning there is an abiding lesson for today  which  powerfully challenges the remaining agitprop of Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein :

Too long a sacrifice

Can make a stone of the heart

O when may it suffice?

That is heaven’s part, our part

To murmur name upon name

As a mother names her child

When sleep at last has come

On limbs that had run wild.

What is it but nightfall?

No no, not night but death.

Was it needless death after all?…

And what if excess of love

Bewildered them till they died?





Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London