There was a new royal embarrassment for Sinn Fein this week when Martin McGuinness accompanied the English queen on a tour of Crumlin Road prison in Belfast, a famous site of struggle for Irish republicans.
Elizabeth Windsor was on her 21st state visit to the Six Counties and this time included a visit to the prison which was housed some of Ireland’s most famous political prisoners.
Alongside the H-Blocks of Long Kesh, Crumlin Road jail was one of the focal points of prison struggles during the conflict. Republican prisoners staged a series of daring breakouts from the Victorian prison during the early 1970s and again in 1981.
Earlier this year, Mr McGuinness attended a royal banquet at Windsor Castle where he was required to stand for the British national anthem and toast the queen. At the time, Tory grandee Norman Tebbit said he hoped the North’s Deputy First Minister would be shot dead as a traitor by republicans at his actions.
On Tuesday, McGuinness again welcomed the queen to Hillsborough Castle outside Belfast. He then accompanied her and First Minister Peter Robinson to the jail to view cells in which republican prisoners were held, including a young IRA martyr who was executed there.
Nearby, Republican Network for Unity erected banners in protest at the visit. They said the British monarch had “unashamedly tramped across the spot in Crumlin Road jail where the Stormont junta, at the behest of the British government, hanged 19 year old IRA volunteer Tom Williams.”
In a statement, they described Martin McGuinness’s decision to “grovel to the British Monarch” as being incompatible with “even the basic ideals of Republicanism”.
A former IRA commander of Derry city and former close associate of Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, Danny McBrearty, also strongly denounced the visit. A former commanding officer of the IRA’s Derry Brigade and former comrade of McGuinness, Mr McBrearty spent 1973-74 and 1978-79 on remand in the jail in the north inner city.
“Nothing surprises me any more about Martin McGuinness,” he said, “so if he does give the Queen of England a guided a tour around the jail where republicans fought and died for their principles, I would not be shocked.”
He praised as “authentic republicans” those who were outside protesting against the presence of a British Queen in a prison “where their comrades suffered so much”.
“As for McGuinness - he is only shaking hands and guiding around his true boss.”
Sinn Fein had issued an advance warning to some of its members in order to soothe concerns among the party grassroots. In the e-mailed notification, it said the visit was “taken in the context of our ongoing work in relation to conflict resolution and national reconciliation, as well as our republican national objectives of Irish re-unification and independence.”
But there has been little sign that McGuinness’s royal encounters have made any impact on the loyalist mindset, with the most recent elections last month showing a sharp increase in support for the more extreme unionist parties.
Unionists did, however, hail the decision to announce the royal itinerary for the visit in advance. Previous visits have been revealed only at the last minute for security reason. DUP Assembly member Robin Newton said the changed approach was “great news” and a “sign of progress”.