Ruth Dudley Edwards: Prince Philip had the virtues seen in many of the brave people of Northern Ireland

I’ve been thinking and reading about Prince Philip since I heard the news of his death.

Tuesday, 13th April 2021, 12:30 pm
Updated Tuesday, 13th April 2021, 12:39 pm
Ruth Dudley Edwards, the author and commentator, who writes a column for the News Letter every Tuesday. She is author of 'The Faithful Tribe: An Intimate Portrait of the Loyal Institutions' and her most recent book is 'The Seven: the lives and legacies of the founding fathers of the Irish republic'

It surprised me how upset I was.

As he had kept pointing out, he was old and it was his time to die. For Covid-related reasons, I was alone as I watched the television coverage, and after a few hours, needing human contact, I walked in the sunshine to Buckingham Palace, just over a mile away.

It was a small crowd and everyone was keeping a respectful distance, but it was heart-warming that there were people of all ages and shades of skin colour there, and striking that the notes I could read on the flowers they left by the railings said things about Philip that unsentimental man would have liked.

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Prince Philip visits Harland in Wolff in 1977. He had visited the shipyard in 1946 on the first of his 57 visits to NI, which continued during the Troubles. He believed that faced with misfortune and tragedy your job is just to get on with things

The messages were of gratitude, thanking him for a life well spent living up to his promise to serve his Queen, country and the Commonwealth.

I don’t know how many people outside the Palace realised that while Philip had a more impressive royal lineage than the woman he would marry (although they were both great-grandchildren of Queen Victoria), he began life as a penniless refugee, thrown out Greece at 18 months, abandoned by his feckless father and his mentally ill mother and relying on the charity of relatives in England, France and Germany.

With his typical sardonic humour, even after he became a rising star and war hero in the Royal Navy fighting the Nazi regime he hated, on forms he would write ‘No fixed abode’.

His life was given meaning at Gordonstoun School in Scotland by its founder and headmaster, Kurt Hahn, a German Jew, who had fled from the Nazis.

There he learned the timeless and universal values of resilience, independence, duty, loyalty, industry and dedication to the task in hand that sustained him throughout his life.

When at her coronation in 1953 he swore to be his wife’s “liege man of life and limb,” he meant it and he stuck by it through thick and thin, even though it required this alpha male and natural leader always in public to be in second place.

Britain is brilliant at assimilating immigrants: Philip is one of the greatest of them.

Like his great-great-grandfather Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, he threw himself into trying to make his adopted country a better place for all its people, and unlike Albert he succeeded in making himself appear to be an epitome of an Englishman.

He had many of the same virtues that in the 1980s brought me, a Dubliner from an Irish nationalist background, living in London, to admire, like, and in many cases love, in many of the brave people of Northern Ireland.

Like him, they believed that you have to play the hand life gives you and that faced with misfortune and tragedy your job is just to get on with it.

Which is what he did with Northern Ireland in his 57 visits — many of them solo — once the Troubles started

He came first with Princess Elizabeth in his naval uniform in 1946, the year before they were married, for the launch at Harland and Wolff of HMS Eagle, Britain’s largest aircraft carrier.

And last, again alone, when in 2017 he hosted yet again a reception for Gold Duke of Edinburgh award recipients at Hillsborough.

There were many memorable visits along the way.

In 1953, in celebration of her coronation, a Royal train took the couple across the province and along the north coast.

In 1961 they brought Charles and Anne (who would become faithful visitors) with them in the Royal yacht Britannia.

From the onset of the Troubles, mostly they travelled by helicopter.

They were not deterred when in 1979 there was the devastating murder of Philip’s beloved uncle Lord Mountbatten with three others in the Republic, with the IRA explaining that this “execution” was “one of the discriminate ways we can bring to the attention of the English people the continuing occupation of our country”.

In 2012, like the Queen, Philip shook hands with Martin McGuinness in Belfast, but duty had its limits. When McGuinness — whose complicity the royal couple of course knew about — moved forward to him to begin a conversation, Philip turned aside and joined his wife.

When it comes to Northern Ireland, Philip has the last laugh.

As Máiría Cahill pointed out in a trenchant tweet: “If the Royal family can organise a Covid compliant funeral, with the prime minister not even attending, it exposes further in stark terms the SF position on the Bobby Storey funeral on him being a ‘public figure’ as the fate that it was during a pandemic.”

I was upset on Friday because Prince Philip has been there all my life.

Like millions and millions of others in the United Kingdom the royal family give me a sense of the nation’s continuity. With all their virtues and failings and triumphs and tragedies the family are at the heart of the nation.

I’ve lived in the Republic under presidents. They are political and transient and their families mean nothing to us.

For many years now I’ve been describing myself as British-Irish.

Friday crystallised for me the essence of my Britishness.

God save the Queen!

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