King Charles and an Irish revolutionary: A reminder of how politics can change
Amid the pomp, ceremony and sorrow following Queen Elizabeth’s passing, nothing resonated more with me or had more emotional and realpolitik impact than seeing King Charles being welcomed to the Northern Ireland Assembly by Assembly Speaker Alex Maskey.
The death of Queen Elizabeth and ascension to the throne by Charles captured the attention of the American people to an almost unprecedented degree. From a historical perspective, I understand and respect what the monarchy means to the British people and the importance of the “special relationship” between our two nations.
On a more personal level, I had an opportunity to meet the Queen and Prince Charles when I was a U.S. congressman and found them personable and engaging.
I say all this as someone who was a severe critic of British policies in Northern Ireland and was persona non grata in British circles for many years. (During my first run for Congress, a member of the British Parliament went on CNN to label me “an evil man.”) But I was able to work with President Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern in the Irish peace process leading to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which provided a political settlement to an 800-year-long struggle. In the agreement’s aftermath, I saw the symbolic but very real contributions made by the queen and the then-Prince of Wales to its successful implementation.
Going back to the early 1980s, I had developed strong contacts in Northern Ireland with leaders of the “Irish Republican“ movement — which, in real-world terms, meant the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and its political arm, Sinn Fein. Most prominent among those leaders were Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.
Among that hierarchy of Irish Republican leadership was Belfast native Alex Maskey. In Irish revolutionary circles, Maskey possessed true bona fides. He was jailed by the British in the 1970s; shot at several times and wounded by pro-British paramilitaries in the 1980s, while his home was gunned down; committed to developing Sinn Fein in the 1980s and ’90s as a major political force in Northern Irish politics and in the Irish peace process.
Having met with Maskey a number of times, I was struck by his dedication, level-headedness, dry sense of humor and perpetual upbeat attitude. I particularly remember going to Belfast when the Northern Ireland Assembly had its official opening in December 1999 and celebrating with him in his home and at the Felons Club, an Irish Republican bar in West Belfast.
There is no way then I could have imagined that ex-prisoner and assassination target Alex Maskey would, almost a quarter-century later, be welcoming the King of England to that Assembly. Nor could I have imagined that Queen Elizabeth would have traveled earlier to Dublin to acknowledge British abuses against the Irish people and later shake hands on several occasions with Martin McGuinness, who British Intelligence claimed to have been the IRA’s chief of staff.
Certainly, I could not have foreseen then-Prince Charles publicly meeting and shaking hands with Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein and alleged member of the IRA Army Council. After all, during the years of violent struggle with British forces, the IRA had killed Lord Mountbatten, a cousin of the British royal family and something of a father figure to Prince Charles.
As I viewed Tuesday’s meeting between the new British monarch and the former revolutionary leader and thought of all the suffering these two men and their people had seen and endured, I marveled at how far their paths had taken them and how truly historic this moment was.
It might even be a reminder for American politicians of how much things can change.
Peter King was the U.S. representative of New York’s 2nd and 3rd congressional districts for 28 years, including serving as chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security. Follow him on Twitter @RepPeteKing.
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