Belfast – As he travels the four corners of his troubled new kingdom, Charles III faces the most trying task of reconciliation in Northern Ireland.
Scotland, which Charles visited on Monday, may be preparing for a new independence referendum, but armed resistance to the Crown there waned centuries ago.
Northern Ireland only achieved peace in 1998 – and it remains fragile.
Northern Ireland Unionists’ devotion to Queen Elizabeth II borders on reverence, embedded in their wider sense of belonging to the UK, which they feel is under threat as never before.
On Shankill Road, Belfast’s staunch unionist, a mural tribute for Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations in June drew a steady stream of mourners and flowers.
Shankill resident Marina Reid, 54, cited reports that have sparked deep anger among trade unionists that a few nationalists have been setting off celebratory fireworks and singing songs since the Queen’s death last week .
“It tells you all about the respect we show them in this time of mourning,” she told AFP.
Northern Ireland Police are investigating but the reports do not reflect the response from the wider pro-Irish nationalist community.
– ‘Courageous’ –
“I recognize that she was a courageous and caring leader,” Sinn Fein Vice-President Michelle O’Neill, who is set to become Northern Ireland’s first minister, told a session on Monday. extraordinary meeting of the regional assembly in Stormont.
She praised “Queen Elizabeth’s significant contribution to the advancement of peace and reconciliation between the different traditions of our island, and between Ireland and Britain during the years of the peace process”.
When he meets the region’s embattled political leaders at the royal estate of Hillsborough Castle, south Belfast, on Tuesday, Charles will receive tributes from pro-British parties and respectful sympathies from nationalists who may nonetheless see reunification with the UK. Ireland getting closer.
Charles will then go to an Anglican church service in Belfast, which will be attended by all faiths, including Protestants and Catholics.
The President, Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Ireland also plan to attend.
For the first time in 101 years of history, the population of a region expressly cut out as a Protestant stronghold is passing to a Catholic majority, the data from the next census should show.
Elections held in May were won by Sinn Fein, formerly the political wing of the paramilitary Irish Republican Army (IRA), who in 1979 murdered Louis Mountbatten, the uncle of the Queen’s late husband, Prince Philip .
– ‘Unstable’ –
But the Stormont government remains suspended, with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) vehemently opposed to post-Brexit trade rules between Brussels and London – which Prime Minister Liz Truss’s new government is threatening to tear up failing concessions from the European Union.
Sinn Fein refuses to recognize the authority of the British monarchy in Northern Ireland and does not take its seats in the British parliament in London.
O’Neill boycotted Sunday’s ceremonial proclamation of Charles III as king at Hillsborough.
But Sinn Fein says it will meet the King with the other leaders and attend the service at St Anne’s Cathedral to both honor the Queen’s long service and respect the Unionist community’s deep sense of loss.
“Unionists feel very unstable about their identity, unstable about their place in the UK after Brexit,” Deirdre Heenan, professor of social policy at the University of Ulster, told AFP.
“The queen’s passing is another blow to their confidence and their identity. They will of course embrace the new king, but they will be aware that it could usher in seismic change,” she said.
– Peace –
Elizabeth, who has visited Northern Ireland 22 times as Queen, was instrumental in the peace process after a landmark agreement in 1998 ended three decades of bloodshed in Northern Ireland .
In 2012, she shook hands with former Sinn Fein minister – and reputed IRA commander – Martin McGuinness. A year earlier, she became the first British monarch to visit an independent Ireland.
At the end of mass on Sunday, the priest at St Patrick’s Catholic Church in central Belfast told his parishioners he intended to hold a prayer for Elizabeth and they were free to go if they wished.
None did, and all joined in prayer, said taxi driver Paul Donnelly, 53, who was born the year the Troubles began – 1969 – and whose father was maimed in a bombing by union activists.
“We may have had our differences but it was a mother, a grandmother, who did her duty until the end,” he said.
“As a child, I watched IRA men shoot a British soldier. I never thought I would see peace in this country, and she helped bring it about, 100%.”