Sensitivities and sensibilities around Royal Visits in the 1980s #20yearrule

Public Record CENT/3/131A ‘Royal Visits General Policy’ was released this morning under the 20 Year Rule into the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland archive. As well as references to Jim Kilfedder’s complaint that he was not given his “proper place” when the Queen Mother visited Northern Ireland in June 1983, the file contains internal correspondence and briefings between 1982 and 1984 and gives an insight into the government sensitivities and sensibilities around visits of the British Royal Family to Northern Ireland. [This PDF contains some snippets from the correspondence I refer to in this post.]

Should a senior Royal visit a particular military unit? Why would the Ordinance Survey NI only be a suitable visit for a male VIP? How neutral would the BBC be as a potential venue? Is a school speech day sufficiently important to warrant a visit?

Shortly after Douglas Hurd became Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, civil servant R J Andrew wrote to him in October 1984 in preparation for a meeting to discuss Royal Visits to Northern Ireland. There were only 9 copies of the document which had a ‘Secret’ classification. In it the official explained the difference between ‘civil’ and ‘military’ visits and describes how Belfast City Hall is off limits.

They differ from similar occasions in Great Britain in that, because of security considerations, there is rarely a prior announcement of the Royal Visit and usually the Secretary of State or his wife is said to be the VIP due to carry out the engagement. This is often a transparent deception, but the policy is to refuse to comment on speculation that the CIP is in fact to be a member of the Royal Family … There is a particular problem about the City Hall, Belfast, where many civic functions are traditionally held. This could only be made accessible to a Royal Visitor at the cost of a vast security operation and we have, therefore, been obliged on a number of occasions to advise against acceptance of an invitation to functions there.

He added:

Too many Royal Visits can cause unease in the nationalist side of the community because of the boost they give to Unionist morale and the opportunity they provide for demonstrating allegiance to the Crown. They also place a considerable burden on the security forces.

Selecting venues for Royal Visits

Some months before, government departments were polled for potential “events … which might be considered worthy of inclusion in a distinguished visitor’s programme”.

The Department of the Environment suggested the new Foyle Bridge and the £17m extension to Marks & Spencers in Belfast alongside the new Fire Authority HQ in Lisburn with its 999 centre.

“The highly skilled work undertaken to repair and maintain valuable historical documents” at the Balmoral Road site of the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland was also mooted as a possible visit venue.

And if its new building was ready off the Stranmillis Road [Ed – it’s recently been knocked down] “a visit to the Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland might be of interest to a (male) distinguished visitor”. No explanation is given why mapping was a male only preserve.

The BBC: too British yet not British enough

A February 1983 report notes that the Princess of Wales was “in favour of making a visit to Northern Ireland and of taking up an invitation from the BBC “to mark the 60th anniversary of the first broadcast from Northern Ireland and the opening of the new extension to the BBC’s Ormeau Avenue building”.

… whilst the BBC invitation was an entirely suitable occasion for a Royal Visit, it was fair to point out that the BBC was not universally smiled upon in Northern Ireland. On the Nationalist side there were those who saw it as being very much the ‘British’ Broadcasting Corporation whilst on the Unionist side there were those who thought it was not British enough.

Whilst Diana visited Belfast in 1985, there was no evidence in the file, nor online, that she opened the BBC extension.

Visiting the UDR

In a note marked SECRET AND PERSONAL, P W J Buxton wrote to the then Head of the NI Civil Service Sir Ewart Bell in February 1984 to discuss a Royal Visit to Aughnacloy from which “elements of 8 UDR [Ulster Defence Regiment] and 1 RRF [Royal Regiment of Fusiliers] both operate”.

8 UDR have not attracted any unusually hostile comment in recent months, even though their headquarters town [Dungannon] is also the home of Father Faul [who taught in St Patrick’s Boys’ Academy]. Operationally they have done some good work; they have not suffered casualties of late, and altogether they are a quite uncontentious unit.

It would be quite unreasonable in my view to ask that Aughnacloy should not be visited … though I realise that the scandal of 2 UDR will easily be rubbed off onto other battalions for an occasion like this. I believe we could withstand the possible flack from Seamus Mallon [who that month was nominated by the Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald to Seanad Éireann]; we might consider tipping the wink to the Irish through Mr Goodison on the day (but not before).

Coleraine Inst Prize Day: a straightforward but insufficiently important event

Even an invitation to a school prize day needed a second or even a third opinion.

While “Coleraine is potentially as straightforward a location as one can find for a Royal Visit to Northern Ireland, taking security, political and other considerations into account” it was deemed that “the annual Speech Day of a school even with such a distinguished history as Coleraine Academical Institution is hardly in itself a sufficiently important event to justify a visit by the Prince and Princess of Wales”.

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