Prince and Irish rebel set old enmity aside
A brief meeting between Prince Charles and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams has been seen as historic. Does it add to the chances of a lasting reconciliation in Northern Ireland?
It was 27 August 1979. 12 miles from the Northern Irish border, Lord Mountbatten, a distinguished former British soldier with royal blood, launched his fishing boat. Moments later, a bomb blew it apart. Mountbatten, two teenage boys and an 82-year-old woman were soon dead, killed by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), who wanted to drive the British out of Northern Ireland.
Mountbatten’s great-nephew, Prince Charles, later said he had ‘lost someone infinitely special’ that day. But among those unmoved was prominent republican Gerry Adams, who said of Mountbatten: ‘I don’t think he could have objected to dying in what was clearly a war situation’. The thought of Charles and Adams exchanging pleasantries would have seemed implausible. Yet yesterday, at the National University of Ireland, the pair remarkably set aside old feuds and shook hands.
Since 1983, Adams has been president of Sinn Fein, a political party which has demanded the end of British rule in Northern Ireland and regularly defended the IRA’s militant tactics. Sinn Fein’s elected MPs still refuse to swear allegiance to the Queen today, meaning they do not take up seats in the UK parliament. Charles, heir to the throne and colonel-in-chief of the parachute regiment which opened fire on the streets of Northern Ireland in deadly events such as Bloody Sunday, has inspired particular hostility among republicans. And as recently as last year, it emerged that Thomas McMahon — the only man convicted for the attack on Mountbatten — was campaigning for Sinn Fein.
From 1968 to 1998, republicans (overwhelmingly Catholic, and who wanted to unite Ireland) fought unionists (almost exclusively Protestant, and who believed in keeping Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom) in a period known as the Troubles. Over 3,000 people died.
The meeting represents the latest small step among attempts to move on. The 1998 Good Friday agreement created a fragile peace, but power-sharing disputes have been common and extremists on either side have continued to threaten and carry out sporadic violence.
Forgive and forget?
Thirty years of conflict cannot simply be forgotten. Families on either side still feel the pain and grief which was inflicted. Some say that, although Adams has denied being an IRA member, his role as apologist for terrorism should not be forgotten. A meaningful, sustainable peace cannot include those tainted by such history.
But others argue that such a stance is counter-productive. Reconciliation is always a messy, difficult process. Both sides suffered injustices and losses during the Troubles, and both need to make sacrifices and tough commitments in order to keep those tragedies in the past.
- Would you shake hands with someone who had previously been a deadly enemy?
- Do gestures such as these make an important difference?
- Write a speech on behalf of either Prince Charles or Gerry Adams, explaining why you chose to take part in this meeting.
- Watch the history of the Troubles and, if you can, read the lengthy article provided. What best explains why conflict in Northern Ireland went on so long? Write a brief essay plan, outlining three factors and choosing the one you consider most significant.
Some People Say...
“Peace demands greater heroism than war”Thomas Merton
What do you think?
Q & A
- Why does this matter? It’s just a handshake.
- On its own, it might not change a lot but it is symbolic. It shows that people on both sides are determined to look forward. And it will send a conciliatory message to those who have looked up to the two men involved.
- But isn’t the conflict in the past anyway?
- Theoretically yes, but there are still occasional outbreaks of violence from extremist groups and tensions exist within Northern Irish society. The political parties have committed themselves to working through peaceful and diplomatic means to achieve their goals, but their aims remain the same.
- How important is religion?
- Religion is very closely intertwined with the two sides’ causes. Northern Irish politics is much more influenced by religion than politics in other parts of the UK.
- Launched his fishing boat
- Mountbatten was taking a holiday with his family at their castle near Sligo, in north-western Ireland. He was warned of the dangers of going fishing but as a 79-year-old who had largely retired, he may have felt that he was not under threat. The attack was interpreted as a declaration by the IRA that anybody could be considered a target.
- Gerry Adams
- Adams was the vice-president of Sinn Fein at the time of the Mountbatten attack. He took over the presidency in 1983 and remains in that position today. He has served as a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly and won a seat in the UK parliament, which he refused to take.
- Sinn Fein
- Pronounced ‘shin fain’, this is Irish for ‘ourselves alone’.
- Bloody Sunday
- 13 people were shot dead by British paratroopers at a civil rights march in Londonderry (known as Derry by republicans) on 30 January 1972. In 2010, an inquiry concluded that none of the victims had posed a serious threat to the paratroopers.
- Over 3,000 people died
- This included over 1,800 civilians and 1,117 British soldiers who were sent to maintain order.