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Monday 22 January 2018

Jubilation in Stormont for Queen’s visit as 20,000 celebrate

Queen Elizabeth waves to members of the public as she and her husband Prince Philip drive through the Stormont estate during a Diamond Jubilee event in Belfast. Photo: Reuters
Queen Elizabeth waves to members of the public as she and her husband Prince Philip drive through the Stormont estate during a Diamond Jubilee event in Belfast. Photo: Reuters

Michael McHugh

THERE was jubilation in the Stormont estate as the Queen paraded in an open-top car in front of 20,000 well-wishers.

The crowd was thick with union flags and a thousand cameras flashed as the apple-green dressed monarch and Duke of Edinburgh waved, smiled and took a brief walk to greet cheering crowds.

It marked the end of Northern Ireland`s two-day Diamond Jubilee celebration at the home of the regional power-sharing parliament and under the nose of a statue symbolising decades of political unionism. Stormont has been the stage for political demonstrations and rallies for decades but more recently has featured pop concerts and even Gaelic Athletic Association events.

The Edward Carson figure, a 12ft high bronze, dominates the mile-long Prince of Wales Avenue. It is dedicated to a former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party trenchantly opposed to concessions on the union at the time of Northern Ireland`s formation just under a century ago.

Unionists are celebrating the centenary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant, which declared opposition to Irish Home Rule, this September and Lord Carson was the first to sign it .

Today the Queen was greeted near the sculpture by Lord Carson`s modern equivalent, Democratic Unionist Stormont First Minister Peter Robinson, and his wife Iris, who exchanged warm words with the monarch and Duke.

There had been slight problems earlier with the volume of people trying to get to the Stormont estate and the gates had to be kept open a little later to allow access. There were reports of park and ride buses struggling to make it through the traffic as roads around the site filled.

The crowd waited hours in relatively warm temperatures, with the special guest running slightly behind schedule because she had so many people to meet at her previous engagement, but she emerged suddenly from the gates of Stormont House clutching a railing in a dark red-coloured vehicle sporting the royal standard to waves of applause and people racing to security barriers to see her.

Among those clapping were Richard Gilpin, 78, from Ballymena in Co Antrim. The ex-army man said he had been proud to serve in the Crown forces and was glad to witness today`s festivities.

"I have waited a long time to see this, it is a smashing tribute to our monarch, she means so much to us as our Queen, she represents the nation and we are delighted to have her here," he said.

He said the Martin McGuinness handshake was a moment of forgiveness.

"It is a real sign of changed times in Northern Ireland. She is our Queen and she is gracious enough to do what once was impossible," he said.

The mood was overwhelmingly positive, although there were a few grumblings as spectators watched big screen replays of the handclasp.

Linda Brown, 48, from south Belfast said: "She is contaminated."

Among other politicians present were Democratic Unionist Stormont health minister Edwin Poots, Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson and Democratic Unionist Jim Wells. DUP North Antrim MP Ian Paisley was also at the garden party.

Bands played for the crowd and fast food stalls selling burgers, doughnuts, coffee and crisps were packed, with people queueing for an hour or more. People sported flags on top of black bowler hats, red, white and blue hair clips, dresses and scarves.

John McCambridge, 68, said he had worn his best suit, a pencil grey outfit, for the occasion but added he had to loosen his collar in the heat.

Half the tickets were given to members of the public and the rest to groups like community organisations.

The Queen was taken in a cavalcade of black Range Rovers down the Prince of Wales Avenue at a snail`s pace as children lifted high by their parents craned their necks for a view. Two Lambeg drummers, another symbol of unionism, pounded out their noisy salute as the group prepared to leave the estate.

The Queen departed by plane shortly afterwards.

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