I saw the Queen in Belfast, August 1961. It was not an intimate audience. I was standing on a curb along with thousands of other people, many waving small Union Flags and some wearing orange sashes and bowler hats.
The Queen was visiting Belfast in August, in the middle of the Protestant Marching season, she and the Royal Yacht Britannia landed at Carrickfergus, the same place William of Orange landed in 1690 when he invaded Ireland to depose James II.
The Protestant press said her landing at Carrickfergus was symbolic of the links between the UK and Northern Ireland and its Protestant majority. The Catholic Nationalist press called it a provocation. Both were correct. The queen landed during the season when Protestant marchers paraded through Catholic neighborhoods with big Lambeg drums, a large drum beaten with Malacca canes, that, like the Bagpipe, were designed to make a horrible racket during battle and scare the enemy. The drums can create a sound of 120 decibels, as loud as bagpipes, and were used by the armies associated with William of Orange. As the Protestants marched, they chanted.
A splitter a spatter the holy water
Splash it on the croppies rum-tum-tum
A cinder asunder we’ll make ‘em lie under
The Protestant boy who carries the drum.
I never forgot those lyrics, or the response.
Up the long ladder and down the short rope.
To Hell with King Billy and God Bless the Pope.
If that doesn’t do, we’ll tear him in two.
And send him to hell with his red, white and blue.
This was before the “troubles” of 1969 and in the 1961 march through Derry it sounded almost like two competing football club fan groups taunting each other. To a 14-year-old who was raised Protestant but had one Protestant grandfather who married a Catholic, and one Catholic grandfather who married a protestant, this was exciting, confusing, and scary.
Until then I had a favorable view of the Queen. A month earlier my grandfather and I had seen the changing of the guard at Buckingham palace. The band marched in to an American tune. My grandfather and I talked about the bond between our nations, forged in two World Wars in defeating the fascists.
I have thought about this over the past 60 plus years. We were taught that she is a figurehead, not involved in politics. But the circumstances of her visit made it a political act. Up until the 1959 elections Ulster Unionist members of Parliament generally supported the conservative side but restrained from attacking Labour to avoid having vote leakage to the Northern Ireland Labour Party. In 1959 the Ulster Unionists unconditionally supported Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan who had taken over the party after the disastrous Suez crisis. The Conservative Government of Harold Macmillan needed to court favor.
As a history buff I’ve asked myself many times, did the Queen consciously take a political stand by landing at Carrickfergus, or was she just, to use Lenin’s term a “useful idiot” in the Conservative cause.
In 8 years, Northern Ireland exploded. “Peace Walls” went up in 1969 to separate Unionist and Nationalist neighborhoods in Belfast and Derry. Those walls have been up 54 years, twice as long as the Berlin Wall. The walls were supposed to come down this year but, at the request of the neighborhoods, they still stand in West Belfast.
Today they are a tourist attraction. And as we rode on the open topped double decker hop-on-hop-off through the neighborhoods people shouted, “Welcome to Belfast, thank you for coming.” The hop-on-hop-off bus drivers tell stories about the troubles. We took the loop around Belfast twice. One driver kept telling us that the flags, banners, and wall murals were just to let people know which neighborhood they were in. “You are perfectly safe in walking these streets” he said — one too many times. The bus stops at the wall and the driver loans passengers’ sharpies to write their own messages on the “peace wall.” There are other messages on the peace wall, in fact on all walls. For instance, Sinn Fein has murals supporting the Palestinian struggle. There are messages for peace as well.
On the Protestant side of the divide there are posters quoting King Charles “I shall inviolably maintain and preserve the settlement of the true Protestant Religion.”
But the context is wrong, Charles (who has said he wished he could be “defender of faith” not “defender of THE faith”) said: “I understand that the Law requires that I should, at My Accession to the Crown, take and subscribe the Oath relating to the Security of the Church of Scotland” and he swore in an oath only someone in a powdered wig could write.
I, Charles the Third, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of My other Realms and Territories, King, Defender of the Faith, do faithfully promise and swear that I shall inviolably maintain and preserve the Settlement of the true Protestant Religion as established by the Laws made in Scotland in prosecution of the Claim of Right and particularly by an Act intituled “An Act for securing the Protestant Religion and Presbyterian Church Government” and by the Acts passed in the Parliament of both Kingdoms for Union of the two Kingdoms, together with the Government, Worship, Discipline, Rights and Privileges of the Church of Scotland. (No reference to Northern Ireland.)
And the beat goes on. As Kevin said in his post “There is peace but no reconciliation.”