Time won't heal all wounds, but a symbolic act by Prince Charles will make a difference
Published 23/04/2015 | 02:30
Prince Charles shakes a great many hands. He's even given mine a brisk shake, at a reception in London, where he delivered a speech about the importance of learning foreign languages.
After the handshake, I asked him which languages he spoke, apart from English. None, said the prince, because he had "no bloody time". And then he moved on to the next hand. He came across as somewhat peeved, who knows why? Maybe it was because the job can be dull, and occasionally may seem pointless to an intelligent man such as Charles.
But every once in a while, people in his position - born with every advantage and of whom little is expected, beyond an adherence to duty - have an opportunity to do something truly meaningful.
An official visit to Mullaghmore falls into that category. The name of the Sligo seaside village is synonymous with IRA violence, but a trip there by the heir to the British throne would make a significant contribution towards reconciliation. It hasn't been confirmed as part of next month's itinerary, when Charles and Camilla come calling. But a visit there has a sense of fitness to it.
This would be a symbolic gesture, a public act of turning the other cheek. It can't fail to make an impact because symbols matter - they have the potential to move people, and to endure.
Lord Louis Mountbatten, the IRA's most famous victim, was blown up as he sailed a booby-trapped boat near his holiday home in Mullaghmore. The earl was Prince Charles's grand uncle, a mentor and friend to him, and the prince read the lesson at his funeral. In all, four people died as a result of that attack almost 36 years ago, including two teenagers, while three others suffered appalling injuries.
Time does not heal all wounds. Sometimes, intervention is required. A visit to this remote, north-western village by Charles would be a way of extending the hand of friendship: to Ireland in general, and Mullaghmore in particular. A way of saying: "I let go of the past, I invite you to, as well."
I doubt if it will be a particularly comfortable experience for the prince. It's all very well for him, or his aides, to consider how this will benefit relationship-normalising between these islands. But it's quite another matter for a human being to set aside their natural revulsion at bloodshed, and go to the place where a close relative was assassinated. In addition, the outstanding natural beauty of the area, in the shadow of Benbulben, is likely to make it harder rather than easier for him.
I must confess that Mullaghmore is a place I love, having spent many holidays there through the years. Lord Mountbatten loved it too, and set aside every August to stay in his 19th century baronial pile on a hilltop overlooking the harbour. I remember his visits when I was a child: there wasn't much fuss, but a flag flew over Classiebawn Castle, and sometimes his 30-foot green wooden boat would be seen leaving or returning to the harbour.
Less often, an elderly man, somehow familiar-looking and with an air of authority, would be glimpsed messing about with his nets. He was not anonymous, but nobody bothered him. You could never say the castle people were part of the community. But Lord Mountbatten was liked.
I don't think many people realised how closely connected to the royal family he was: a great grandson of Queen Victoria, uncle to Prince Philip, second cousin once removed to Queen Elizabeth. He was also the last Viceroy of India and its first Governor-General, as well as a British war hero.
When he was in residence, the guards used to keep an eye on Classiebawn, but he had no personal protection and his boat - Shadow V - lay in the harbour for anyone to interfere with. Once, some holes were drilled in its hull, and the vessel would have sunk if they hadn't been spotted by a fisherman. However, this warning was ignored, despite the Troubles and the proximity of the border just 12 miles away.
Lord Mountbatten was 79 in the summer of 1979. He had a family group staying with him at Classiebawn, including his daughter Pamela and twin 14-year-old grandsons, Nicholas and Timothy Knatchbull. It had been a wet August. But the day was clear and bright on that Monday morning, on August 27, and a party of six set sail from the castle, along with Paul Maxwell, a 15-year-old local who was crewing.
Only three survived. The explosion killed Nicholas and Paul, while the Dowager Lady Brabourne, his daughter's mother-in-law, died the following day. Lord Mountbatten was pulled alive from the water by nearby fishermen but died from his injuries before reaching the shore. Many small boats rushed to the scene to help with the rescue.
The IRA quickly claimed responsibility, its statement saying: "This operation is one of the discriminate ways we can bring to the attention of the English people the continuing occupation of our country." Two men were later convicted of the bombing, an attack which sent shock waves around the world.
There were some in the Republican family who regarded it as harming the cause. And there were many in the local community who resented what was done on their turf, supposedly in their name. Occasionally, in the aftermath, they'd speak of their anger at this act which bracketed Mullaghmore's name with violence and bloodshed. But if Prince Charles goes there in May, ready to shake hands, it will make a difference. This I believe.
Let the last word go to Lord Mountbatten, writing to his wife Edwina (who inherited Classiebawn) after first visiting it: "You never told me how stupendously magnificent the surrounding scenery was. No place has thrilled me more."