Ben Lowry: There is no reason to think King Charles will be bad for the Union
On TV they described the new monarch’s encounter with well-wishers as his first test of public opinion.
The touching scenes did not surprise me, because I have reported on royal visits by Charles and others to Northern Ireland for more than 20 years and on many occasions I have witnessed the great warmth towards them here.
We have all also seen TV reports on visits abroad by Charles and Camilla, and before that by Charles and Diana, and my recollection is that they were greeted with enthusiasm wherever they went.
He got the same if he travelled unaccompanied — as was memorably apparent when the then Prince of Wales visited the Republic of Ireland solo in 1995 to a rapturous reception. It laid a path for the Queen’s visit in 2011, her first time (at the age of 85) south of the border.
King Charles has been around a long time, he has become well known around the world, and people like him and have a good vibe about his character.
The happy scenes yesterday got me thinking about the theory, gleefully conveyed in some quarters, that the death of the Queen will be bad, perhaps terminal, for Northern Ireland’s place in the Union.
There are for sure multiple challenges to the Union, and this column often discusses them.
But I see no evidence that Charles coming to the throne is high among those challenges, such that it will precipitate a rupture.
It is understandable that people across the UK are anxious about the loss of the Queen and what it means for the future of the country.
It is a cliché to talk about her having been a ‘national grandmother’ but that is the comforting, unchanging position that she occupied in the minds of swathes of the UK, people now aged in their 60s and below.
Even people who are far older than that cannot remember a time without her. A close relative of mine died recently, at the age of 91. Even someone of his age, born in 1930, could not remember a time without her in the news. When he was six, in 1936, the young Princess Elizabeth was already daughter to the king and in line to the throne. She featured in newsreels in the cinema.
As thus many people have had decades to observe how the Queen almost never put a foot wrong.
Some people carped about her “immense privilege”, and it was certainly immense. Few people who have ever walked on this Earth have had access to such riches.
But almost everybody could see beyond that, and understood that Queen Elizabeth was not really free. Her uncle Edward, who tried to escape the shackles of destiny and duty by abdicating the throne and pursuing the life he wanted to pursue rather than the life fate handed him, was never much admired or respected.
His brother, on the other hand, a nervous younger sibling, who was thrown into the position of king due to Edward’s abandonment of it, became an adored head of state. George VI, the Queen’s father, was the very opposite of selfish. He accepted the daunting position of king, overcame a stammer that greatly undermined his confidence, and stayed in London during the German blitz, winning the undying affection of his subjects.
The public adore a privileged person who lives a life of sacrifice, just as they despise a privileged person who is lazy or entitled.
The Queen knew, and cited scripture that seemed to show that she knew, that worldly possessions and titles are transient. And people intuitively understood that she took such an approach, even if they didn’t follow her reign closely. They knew that she never missed a State Opening of Parliament, or the arrival of a new prime minister, to take a luxury holiday. Even into her 90s, she only absented herself from such duties if she had no alternative, as was the case last week.
What has all this got to do with unionism?
The point is that people loved the Queen in large part because they admired her personality and character. King Charles has those same traits and people know it.
I sometimes feel sorry for royals who are not in the direct line of succession and who can escape much of the duty, and instead enjoy decadent lives. How many among us can be sure that, in the circumstances, we would spurn such a life of fun?
But if so, we would not earn the public’s lasting affection.
Charles is plainly a man who is concerned about his country, about the world, and who has accepted that he has been born into duty.
It is true that he has expressed a view on political issues such as climate change, but the poor man has had to find meaning in his life for the last 74 years. It is striking that he has not, for example, been so foolish as to divulge his views on a divisive issue such as Brexit. Or Northern Ireland.
Like all the other senior members of the royal family, he has treated Northern Ireland like any part of the UK. They love it here and are always in and out of the place.
This has mostly been done without an agenda, but at times has been highly symbolic. I recall clearly at the age of 5 being with relatives on the roof of our home overlooking Belfast Lough when the Queen sailed in on Royal Yacht Britannia in 1977 as part of her jubilee tour.
I did not understand at the time that the Queen had not been in NI since the 1960s and would not return again until 1991, due to the terror threat. But she made sure that this part of the UK was included in her tour. And the crowds loved her and loved the fact that she had come. As they do, and will, when her son, Charles, comes, and, in turn, when his son William does.
• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter editor:
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• Ruth Dudley Edwards Sep 6: Truth is the weapon to use against the lies of the IRA
• Henry McDonald Sep 6: Unionists should tread carefully over trust in Truss
• Owen Polley September 5: New PM needs to ignore latest EU threats over NI
• Ben Habib Sep 5: Protocol is not just a threat to NI, but to the whole of the UK