Prince pleased at work to unite communities

The Prince of Wales has said he was encouraged by efforts to bring Northern Ireland’s two communities together during a visit to east Belfast.

Charles was at a community centre a stone’s throw from where serious sectarian rioting has taken place – and nationalists and unionists came together to meet him.

His Prince’s Regeneration Trust helped bring the inner city East Belfast Network Centre to life through a £3.6 million facelift.

The former school which survived bombing during the Second World War and the worst years of the Troubles fell victim to falling pupil numbers in 1976 and was left derelict and boarded up.

Charles said: “I have been watching with great interest the work of my regeneration trust over quite some years in order to help all of you bring this back to life.

“Having met several people here today who were at school here I am even more delighted and thrilled that I have had a chance to see this building restored back to life and being used in such an incredible, valuable and worthwhile way.

“The fact that it is working so well to bring members of both communities together in such an effective way is even more encouraging.”

The Prince was presented with a painting by Irish artist Ross Wilson of a 1927 photograph of the preserved building when it opened as Templemore School.

Charles added: “I just wanted to say that it is a particularly valuable development and I wish all of you every possible success in the future.

“I am sure it will make a really extraordinary difference to the life of this whole area of east Belfast.”

The former school is close to the nationalist Short Strand.

Two years ago rioting broke out nearby following unionist protests against restrictions on flying the Union Flag from Belfast’s City Hall. East Belfast has also seen regular trouble related to Loyal Order parades.

Michael Briggs, executive director at the East Belfast Community Development Agency, showed Charles around the centre.

He said: “We cannot take our eye off the ball and the effort involved in keeping good community relations going. It is very difficult at times, other times it just flows.

“It has taken Northern Ireland a long time to get into this mess and it will take a long time to get out of it.”

The centre sits in the heart of east Belfast, close to a loyalist-republican interface.

During his visit, Charles was presented with a book of memories of the Templemore Avenue school by the oldest former pupil, Esther Hamilton, 91, who reopened the centre last year.

She attended between 1935 and 1938 and said she was delighted to meet him.

He also met Rachael Lloyd, three, on her tricycle in the Oasis Early Years Centre, which rents accommodation in the building.

Other services provided include bereavement counselling, art therapy, anti-suicide and young people’s organisations.

Charles donned headphones as he listened to the East Belfast Talking Newspaper.

Among guests were First Minister Peter Robinson, East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson and Assembly member Sammy Douglas.

As he arrived, the Prince shook hands with well-wishers. He later attended a reception and evening of music, song and word at Hillsborough Castle, featuring locals artists.

Meanwhile, the Duchess of Cornwall hailed the credit union movement for saving people from the hands of loan sharks as she visited an award-winning branch in Belfast.

A committed advocate of the non-for-profit banks, the Duchess also revealed to young savers in the Ballyhackamore Credit Union that she even had an account of her own.

Camilla chatted with staff and members of the east Belfast lender before unveiling a plaque to commemorate her visit.

“I think it’s so important people know about it,” she said of the concept.

“When I came on board I knew absolutely nothing about it – I’m learning slowly. I have also talked to a lot of people who have literally been in dire straits, in the hands of loan sharks.”

She commended the work of the Ballyhackamore staff in assisting those in need.