The latest visit by British royals to Ireland has once again sown division among nationalists and republicans.
Leading Sinn Fein figures were among those who shook hands or were photographed with Charles Windsor, the unapologetic commander of the British Army regiment responsible for some of the worst of atrocities in Ireland.
The secretively planned and heavily choreographed visit began on Tuesday when Windsor and his wife Camilla attended an event in north Belfast, where Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly and Caral ni Chuilin were among those to take part in a meet-and-greet at a local methodist church.
Charles stoked controversy on Wednesday when he chose to observe a minute’s silence for the victims of London’s Grenfell Tower tragedy during the visit, but made no gesture towards to those who died in Ireland at the hands of his own murderous regiment.
There was disbelief in Cork later in the week, as Charles and Camilla were ushered by local politicians past the statues of martyred city mayors Tomas MacCurtain and Terence MacSwiney as the British Union Jack flew over the City Hall.
Windsor has never apologised for the Bloody Sunday massacre, a reason why local Sinn Fein mayor Maoliosa McHugh refused to meet him when he visited Derry last October. But new Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald has made it clear she has returned the party to its controversial ‘outreach’ agenda, regardless of the stance of the British establishment.
Gerry Kelly dismissed criticism of his own handshake as Ms ni Chuilin looking on, and said he hoped to “build on” the gesture.
“Republicanism is built on interculture, especially north Belfast,” he said.
“We understand that in Ireland and in this part of Ireland we have people who are British and see themselves as British, and this is part of their culture as well.
“I would hope that there would be reciprocation, I am not demanding that, that is not why I came.
“If we can build on this, I don’t want to exaggerate this as if it is a huge thing. I want them (unionists) to understand that that is a part of outreach, it is not the only bit of outreach I have done, and in North Belfast there is outreach all the time, it does not get talked about at all.”
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said she also held a “private meeting” with Windsor at an undisclosed location during his visit to Cork. She said it was “an opportunity to extend the hand of friendship not just to Prince Charles or to the British royal family but to those on our island who identify as British and who are British.”
The meeting was also attended by the party’s deputy leader Michelle O’Neill.
“The conflict in our country caused great suffering and pain,” Ms McDonald said in a statement. “The past has fostered distrust on all sides of political discourse across the island. That is the reality, but in extending the hand of friendship we can help to build a better future for all.”
There was an outcry on social media, with republicans and socialists posting images and quotes denouncing Sinn Fein’s actions as anti-republican. Some quoted James Connolly, the republican socialist martyr of 1916, who wrote: “Believing as we do that there is nothing on earth more sacred than humanity, we deny all allegiance to this institution of royalty, and hence we can only regard the visit of the King as adding fresh fuel to the fire of hatred with which we regard the plundering institutions of which he is the representative.”
As a banquet was laid on for Windsor, a group called the Cork Friends of the Ballymurphy Massacre Families protested nearby, on St Patrick’s Bridge.
Republican Sinn Fein also held protests during further visits by the royal couple to Tralee and Killarney in County Kerry. Des Dalton, President of Republican Sinn Fein, described the flying of the British flag over Cork City Hall as a “shameful act”.
“The flying of the Union Jack over Cork City hall is a grotesque act of shoneenism in the city of MacCurtain and MacSwiney,” he said. “Both Tomas MacCurtain and Terence MacSwiney were Lord Mayors of Cork who died at the hands of the British state because of their belief in Ireland’s right to nationhood. No other self-respecting nation would behave in this manner.
“Would a French town or city display the symbols of German occupation and oppression from their public buildings?”
He said “nobody would be surprised” by the actions by of the Sinn Fein leadership in meeting the royals.
“This is simply the logical outworking of their abandonment of even an Irish nationalist, let alone, an Irish Republican position on Ireland’s historic integrity as a 32-county nation. The Provisionals are now simply yet another constitutional nationalist party, who have acted as administrators of British rule in Ireland.
“The meeting was simply a further example of their acceptance of British rule in Ireland. While the British occupation of the Six Counties continues, there cannot be normal relations between Ireland and Britain.”