Prince Harry and Meghan Markle left thousands of school pupils star-struck yesterday as they gave the royal seal of approval to a local peace-building initiative.
On their first engagement of the day, the couple travelled to the site of the former Maze prison near Lisburn to see how the next generation is working to create a less troubled future.
Around 2,500 schoolchildren – drawn from both sides of the community across the nine counties of Ulster – were stunned to discover the identities of their surprise guests.
The pupils have been involved in Co-operation Ireland’s ‘Amazing the Space’ initiative which inspires young people to become ambassadors for peace in Northern Ireland.
Harry and Meghan received a rapturous reception as they entered the huge performance arena at the Eikon Centre to experience a fusion of music and drama – and hear uplifting messages of hope and “peace pledges” from the young people.
Foyle College pupil and Amazing the Space steering committee member William Watson said today’s event was 18 months in the planning.
“Having such high level guests is the most encouraging thing that could happen. It really drives it home to young people that this needs to be talked about.
“It shows that we are cause worth promoting and that it has a purpose,” he said.
Caoishe McLaughlin, 18, from St Brigid’s College in Londonderry said she was “amazed” at how relaxed the royal couple made everyone feel.
“We were expecting it to be more formal...and when they came in it was just so relaxed and we were kind of surprised at that,” she said.
Amazing the Space was launched by Prince Harry during his previous visit to Northern Ireland in September 2017.
The couple were greeted by 17-year-old Londonderry students Amber Hamilton from Foyle College, and Ryan Mc Callion from St Joseph’s Boys school, before meeting a number of dignitaries including Chief Constable George Hamilton.
Natalia Ciocoi of Newry High school was impressed at Ms Markle’s personal touch, as well as her sense of style.
“Meghan said to me that my hair was really nice. She was even more pretty than I thought. She was really interested, and she seemed to care about us,” Natalia said.
St Paul’s High Bessbrook pupil Caitlin Cromie said Meghan is a ardent and knowledgeable supporter of shared education initiatives.
“It was a very big surprise. She was very nice and very pleasant. She knew a lot about the shared education and she was asking us all about One World Day.”
Londonderry Presbyterian minister Rev David Latimer said Prince Harry “saw hope in the young people”.
Rev Latimer said the prince “told the young people ‘you have opened a door...a door that wasn’t open for your parents or grandparents’,” and provided further royal endorsement by telling them to go through the door together.
Rev Latimer said: “He told them to ‘keep doing what you are doing’.”
Referring to Ms Markle, he said: “Her feet are on the ground,” and added: “The younger royals are doing things differently [to previous generations]...by coming and relating to young people.
“They wanted to be with the main people of today and that was the young people. They wanted to listen to young people and what they in turn said to the young people was big encouragement.”
Co-operation Ireland chief executive Peter Sheridan said we could all learn from the young people involved in Amazing the Space.
“I hope they inspire all our politicians...they want peace. They want to work together and they want to live together.”
Mr Sheridan added: “He [Harry] seems to have a keen interest in peace-building. They sat next to the kids, they didn’t sit beside adults, and I think they enjoyed it.”