BELFAST: Cheering crowds greeted King Charles III on Tuesday in Northern Ireland on his tour of the four parts of the United Kingdom, where the visit drew a rare moment of unity from politicians in a region with a contested British and Irish identity that is deeply divided over the monarchy.
Hundreds of people lined the street leading to Hillsborough Castle near Belfast, the royal family’s official residence in Northern Ireland, in the latest outpouring of affection following Queen Elizabeth II’s death on Sept. 8. The area in front of the gates to the castle was carpeted with hundreds of floral tributes.
Charles and his wife Camilla, the Queen Consort, got out of their car to meet villagers — waving to the crowd and sometimes using both hands to reach out to people, including schoolchildren in bright blue uniforms.
Charles even petted a corgi — famously his late mother’s favorite breed of dog — held up by one person, and some chanted “God save the king!”
“Today means so much to me and my family, just to be present in my home village with my children to witness the arrival of the new king is a truly historic moment for us all,” said Hillsborough resident Robin Campbell as he waited for Charles.
But he added: “It is also a day tinged with great sadness as we witness a loving son coming to our village while we are all in mourning for the loss of a truly magnificent queen and his loving mother.”
While there was a warm welcome in Hillsborough, the British monarchy draws mixed emotions in Northern Ireland, where there are two main communities: mostly Protestant unionists who consider themselves British and largely Roman Catholic nationalists who see themselves as Irish.
That split fueled three decades of violence known as “the Troubles” involving paramilitary groups on both sides and U.K. security forces, in which 3,600 people died. The royal family was touched personally by the violence: Lord Louis Mountbatten, a cousin of the queen and a much-loved mentor to Charles, was killed by an Irish Republican Army bomb in 1979.
A deep sectarian divide remains, a quarter century after Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace agreement.
For some Irish nationalists, the British monarch represents an oppressive foreign power. But others acknowledge the queen’s role in forging peace. On a visit to Northern Ireland in 2012, she shook hands with Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness, a former IRA commander – a once-unthinkable moment of reconciliation.
Alex Maskey, a Sinn Fein politician who is speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, said the queen had “demonstrated how individual acts of positive leadership can help break down barriers and encourage reconciliation.”
In a sign of how far Northern Ireland has come on the road to peace, representatives of Sinn Fein are attending commemorative events for the queen and meeting the king on Tuesday.
Maskey expressed condolences to the king at an event in Hillsborough Castle attended by leaders from all the main political parties in Northern Ireland.
Charles responded that his mother “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.”
He said he would draw on his mother’s “shining example” and “seek the welfare of all the inhabitants of Northern Ireland.”
Still, not everyone was welcoming the new king.
On the Falls Road in Belfast, a nationalist stronghold, several walls are decorated with murals of Bobby Sands, an IRA member who died while on a hunger strike in prison in 1981, and others killed in the Troubles.
“No, he’s 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.”
Later, Charles and Northern Ireland politicians are to attend a “service of reflection” for the queen at St. Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast.
The president and prime minister of the neighboring Republic of Ireland also are due to attend, despite tense relations between Dublin and London over Brexit. Since Britain left the European Union in 2020, the U.K. and the EU have been wrangling over trade rules for Northern Ireland, the only part of the U.K. that shares a border with a member of the bloc.
On Monday night, Charles and siblings Anne, Andrew and Edward briefly stood vigil around their mother’s flag-draped coffin in St. Giles Cathedral as members of the public filed past.
The following morning, a man wearing a suit adorned with medals stood silently, bowed his head and moved on. A woman dabbed away tears with a handkerchief. Another woman with two young children in school uniforms walked slowly past the coffin.
In the line of mourners outside the cathedral in the historic heart of Edinburgh, Sheila McLeay called the queen “a wonderful ambassador for our country.”
“She was such an example for every single one of us. She was dignified. She was just, she was beautiful inside and out. And I have known her all of my life. And I miss her very much,” she added.
The queen’s coffin was scheduled to leave Scotland later Tuesday to be flown back to London and driven to her official London home, Buckingham Palace. On Wednesday, it will be taken through central London to Parliament, where the queen will lie in state until her funeral in Westminster Abbey on Monday. Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to line up to pay their last respects at the coffin.
The Royal Air Force C-17 Globemaster that will carry the coffin has been used to evacuate people from Afghanistan and to take humanitarian aid and weapons to Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, U.K. Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston said.
Early Tuesday, scores of workers cleaned litter and weeds from the road from the air force base where the plane carrying the coffin will land.