Martin and Peter go back to Crumlin Gaol at Her Majesty's pleasure
Published 25/06/2014 | 02:30
IT was Queen Elizabeth's first visit to a prison, albeit one that no longer houses inmates in its cells.
On arrival at the regenerated Crumlin Road Gaol visitor attraction in north Belfast, complete with staff in Victorian costume, the queen and Prince Philip were met by two former inmates.
First Minster Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, both of whom had been detained at "the Crum" in the 70s and 80s, accompanied the royals on their visit to the infamous interface venue, which is now playing a vital role in peace-building.
As harpist Meabh Magee played for the queen she was presented with a small posy of flowers and the Duke of Edinburgh was given a bottle of 15-year-old Danny Boy Irish whiskey to take home to with him. While it is usually a firm favourite photograph opportunity for tourists, the royal couple decided not to stop for a picture in the prison stocks.
The royals learned about the 19th Century Grade A listed building's colourful past during a guided tour and heard about the history of the site from when women and children were held within its walls, through to the separation of republican and loyalist prisoners, and its closure in 1996, before it was reimagined as a tourist attraction.
Belfast should be an example to the world of people overcoming differences, the queen later said.
In a landmark visit marking Northern Ireland's steady transition from a violent past to a peaceful future, the symbolic visit to the once forbidding Crumlin Road Gaol echoed in her words.
Images of the monarch and former IRA commander exchanging pleasantries and small talk as they walked slowly past gloomy cells set the mood for a packed schedule in Belfast.
Undoubtedly a highlight of the trip for Northern Ireland was showcasing to the world the HBO hit series 'Game of Thrones' – filmed at the Titanic studios in the old shipyard.
The royals were taken on a tour of the main sets familiar to millions of fans and met six of the leading cast.
It was this new era of life in Northern Ireland that the queen drew on in a speech to invited guests, elected representatives and dignitaries at City Hall.
"I know there are many challenges ahead and peacemaking is not always an easy task," she said.
"But you have come this far by turning the impossible into the possible; and, as you face the future and difficulties that may appear insurmountable, always remember that the thoughts and prayers of millions, including my own, are with you."
The queen added: "The world yearns for examples of positive transformation and of people overcoming differences.
"I hope and believe that Belfast will continue to be one such living example, and I want to thank you – all of you – from every part of this city for the hard work and dedication which you and your families have given to help reshape the city of Belfast and the lives of all the people who live here."
The day's events began at "the Crum", an imposing courthouse and jail used for executions, jailing terrorists and the scene of some of Northern Ireland's most high profile trials and incarcerations. Among the cells they passed was the room where 12 condemned prisoners were hanged.
Mr McGuinness was held in the prison for over a month in 1976 on a charge of IRA membership – a count that was later dropped in court.
Mr Robinson was detained on a number of occasions during the 1980s for his involvement in protests against the Anglo Irish Agreement.
Mr McGuinness described the queen's visit to the prison as another "bold step".
Later, the royal visitors attended a garden party in Hillsborough Castle hosted by Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers.
Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore and former US diplomat Dr Richard Haass, who last year chaired ill-fated talks on Northern Ireland's legacy issues, also attended.