The Prince of Wales has visited a Catholic church in Belfast that has been at the centre of a series of bitter marching disputes involving Protestant loyal orders and loyalist bands.
St Patrick’s Church has witnessed disorder and discord in recent years, with some parading loyalist bandsmen accused of provocative and sectarian behaviour while passing the place of worship.
The visit of the prince and the Duchess of Cornwall will be seen as another symbolic gesture by a Royal family keen to contribute to reconciliation in Northern Ireland.
Watch their visit
Last month 13 members of one loyalist band were convicted of playing a sectarian tune while marching in a circle on Donegall Street outside the chapel in 2012. The bandsmen, who were accompanying parading Orangemen, were found guilty of playing the so-called Famine Song, which is played to the same tune as the Beach Boys Sloop John B, but with anti-Catholic lyrics.
That incident marked the first of what would become a series of flashpoints incidents at the church. Weeks later disorder broke out after another parading controversy.
In subsequent summers, restrictions have been placed on loyal order parades passing the church, with residents from nearby nationalist neighbourhoods staging protests against the loyal orders and loyalist bands.
Loyal orders claim their lawful right to parade has been restricted and have insisted they have offered concessions in regard to limiting band music to hymns.
The royal couple are on the third of a four day visit to the island of Ireland.
After two days in the Republic of Ireland, they have travelled to Northern Ireland.
Yesterday Charles made an emotional trip to Mullaghmore in Co Sligo - the picturesque fishing village where his beloved great uncle Lord Mountbatten and three others were murdered by the IRA in 1979.
At St Patrick’s, the royal couple met a cross section of parishioners and organisations involved in a wide range of church activities.
Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness also attended the church event.
After the engagement, the royal couple are due to visit a number of community projects elsewhere in the city.
After leaving the church, the prince and duchess had an impromptu walkabout to chat with well-wishers gathered outside.
The priest at St Patrick’s, Fr Michael Sheehan, said he believed the visit was a sign of solidarity from Charles.
“Hopefully it’s a small step forward,” he said. “Some people will be willing to follow that step, others may not yet be willing to follow that step on that journey, and others might never follow that step. But I think it’s a step toward reconciliation and an acknowledgement of both pain and suffering on both sides of our community.”
He added: “I think that standing with solidarity is a very positive message coming from the prince.”
St Patrick’s is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the formation of its congregation.
Protestant church leaders joined Catholic counterparts inside the chapel to welcome the royals.
The couple also met schoolchildren from local schools and viewed the painting The Madonna of the Lakes by renowned artist Sir John Lavery, who was baptised in the church.
There then followed a short prayer service led by Fr Sheehan and the Church of Ireland Dean of Belfast John Mann.
Before the prince and duchess left they were presented with a painting based on Lavery’s famous painting.
Ahead of the visit there was a small protest close to the church staged by relatives of 10 people shot dead by British soldiers in the Ballymurphy area of west Belfast in 1971.
Mr McGuinness, who shook hands with the prince outside St Patrick’s, welcomed his contribution toward reconciliation in Ireland.
“I think overall the visit has been very important in relation to what I think is the next essential step in the peace process - that of reconciliation,” he said.
“Peacemaking is very difficult but if we are serious about peace and reconciliation, I think we all have to recognise there is a need to rise above old enmities. That is absolutely essential.
“There is a lot of focus in the course of this visit on the past but I think the visit also focuses everybody on the need to move forward to a better future.
“If we are to move forward to build a better future for our children, who are the most important people in all of this, then I think we do have to rise above old enmities, and whenever people make the effort to be part of a reconciliation process, then I think we have to welcome that.”
The Sinn Fein veteran revealed that he congratulated the prince on speaking Irish - during his address in Co Sligo yesterday - when he met him again today.
“I said to him that I thought it was tremendous he honoured the Irish language and that he spoke very well in Irish and I think he was very pleased at that,” he said.