King Charles III travelled to Northern Ireland today and vowed to follow the “shining example” of his mother by “seeking the welfare of all the inhabitants of Northern Ireland.”  

Before attending a remembrance service for the Queen at St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast, the King met with political leaders of all five of Northern Ireland’s main political parties at Hillsborough Castle, the royal residence in County Down.

The King’s visit – which is part of his tour of all four nations following the death of his mother – was a sensitive one, considering the Monarchy’s fraught history with Irish Republicanism. 

The fact that Sinn Fein’s Alex Maskey, the Stormont Speaker, was present to deliver a message of condolence to the King and Queen Consort is being upheld as a sign of progress: Maskey is the longest-serving representative of the Republic party Sinn Féin, the former political wing of the IRA

Maskey spoke warmly of the late Queen: ”She personally demonstrated how individual acts of positive leadership can help break down barriers, and encourage reconciliation.”

Elizabeth II reigned for all three decades of the Troubles. She symbolises “Britishness” in Northern Ireland, which, unsurprisingly, has decidedly mixed implications for her popularity.

Unionists, who who wish to keep the region under British rule, are some of the Royal family’s most devoted subjects. But for many Irish nationalists, she represents British oppression. 

Yet the Monarchy’s relationship with the biggest Irish nationalist party, Sinn Féin, has significantly evolved in recent years. While the party has stressed it will not partake in any events marking King Charles’ accession to the throne – this being a step too far – a Sinn Féin delegation attended the service at St Anne’s Cathedral. Its vice president, Michelle O’Neill, dressed in black, led the tributes to the Queen in the assembly chamber, describing the late monarch as “courageous and gracious”.

These are significant gestures given that in 2011, Sinn Féin attempted to boycott the Queen’s state visit to the Republic of Ireland – the first by a British monarch to the Republic. 

The state visit went ahead anyway and turned out to be something of a breakthrough. The Queen laid a wreath in honour of Irish people killed fighting for independence from Britain and used a few Irish words in her speech at Dublin Castle. A year later, she went further: The Queen, whose cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, was killed in a 1979 IRA bomb attack, met and shook hands with former IRA leader Martin McGuinnes. 

According to Peter Sheridan, head of a peace-building organisation Co-operation Ireland who organised the event, the gesture, which took place 14 years after the Good Friday Agreement, “almost cemented the peace process.”

In Maskey’s message of condolence today, he reflected on these historic moments: “(The Queen) showed how a small but significant gesture, a visit, a handshake, crossing the street, or speaking a few words of Irish, can make a huge difference in changing attitudes and building relationships.”

Will her successor come to be hailed as an agent of reconciliation in this same way? 

King Charles in taking over at a time of huge political uncertainty in Northern Ireland. 

Unionists feel betrayed by the British government after Boris Johnson rowed back on his 2019 promise to never accept an Irish Sea trade border.

And while Unionism retains an overall electoral lead over Republicanism, that advantage has significantly narrowed. In May, Sinn Féin – which is still calling for a united Ireland – secured the largest number of seats in the regional parliament for the first time.

O’Neill said yesterday that she is “looking forward” to working with King Charles. “We have bridges to mend,” she said, and “I’m sure that he will carry on the legacy of building relationships between our two islands”.

These positive words are indicative of the progress made over the last few decades, fast-forwarded by the Queen herself. 

Ultimately, though, we cannot escape the fact that the monarch and O’Neill have very different visions for these “two islands”. Sinn Féin has said a referendum on letting Northern Ireland join a united Irish state should be held within a decade.