King Charles in Belfast, queen’s coffin to return to London

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — King Charles III flew to Northern Ireland on Tuesday on the latest leg of his tour of the four parts of the United Kingdom, where a cheering crowd gathered to greet him in a region with a contested British and Irish identity that is deeply divided over the British monarchy.

In the latest outpouring of affection since Queen Elizabeth II’s death last Thursday, hundreds of people lined the street leading to Hillsborough Castle, the royal family’s official residence in Northern Ireland, just outside Belfast. The area in front of the gates to the castle was carpeted with hundreds of floral tributes.

Charles and his wife Camilla, the Queen Consort, got out of their car to greet villagers — waving to the cheering crowd and sometimes using both hands at once to shake the mass of outstretched hands from people including schoolchildren in bright blue uniforms.

Charles even petted a corgi — famously his late mother’s favorite breed of dog — held up by one person.

“Today means so much to me and my family, just to be present in my home village with my children to witness the arrival of the new king is a truly historic moment for us all,” said Hillsborough resident Robin Campbell, as he waited for the new monarch.

“Although it is also a day tinged with great sadness as we witness a loving son coming to our village while we are all in mourning for the loss of a truly magnificent queen and his loving mother,” he added.

While there was a warm welcome in Hillsborough, the British monarchy draws mixed emotions in Northern Ireland, where there are two main communities: mostly Protestant unionists who consider themselves British and largely Roman Catholic nationalists who see themselves as Irish.

That split fueled three decades of violence known as “the Troubles” involving paramilitary groups on both sides and U.K. security forces, in which 3,600 people died. The royal family was touched personally by the violence: Lord Louis Mountbatten, a cousin of the queen and a much-loved mentor to Charles, was killed by an Irish Republican Army bomb in 1979.

A deep sectarian divide remains, a quarter century after Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace agreement.

But in a sign of how far Northern Ireland has come on the road to peace, representatives of Sinn Fein — the main Irish nationalist party, linked during the Troubles to the IRA — are attending commemorative events for the queen and meeting the king on Tuesday.

Sinn Fein’s president, Mary Lou McDonald, paid tribute to the 96-year-old monarch following her death last Thursday, calling her “a powerful advocate and ally of those who believe in peace and reconciliation.”

The president and prime minister of the neighboring Republic of Ireland are also due to attend a memorial service in Belfast, despite tense relations between Dublin and London over Brexit. Since Britain left the European Union in 2020, the U.K. and the EU have been wrangling over trade rules for Northern Ireland, the only part of the U.K. that shares a border with a member of the bloc.

On Monday night, Charles and his siblings, Anne, Andrew and Edward, their heads bowed, briefly stood vigil around their mother’s flag-draped coffin in St. Giles’ Cathedral as members of the public filed past.

The following morning, a man wearing a suit adorned with medals stood silently, bowed his head and moved on. A woman dabbed away tears with a handkerchief. Another woman with two young children in their school uniforms walked slowly past the coffin.

In the line of mourners outside St. Giles’ Cathedral in the historic heart of Edinburgh, Sheila McLeay called the queen “a wonderful ambassador for our country.”

“She was such an example for every single one of us. She was dignified. She was just, she was beautiful inside and out. And I have known her all of my life. And I miss her very much,” she added.

The queen’s coffin was leaving Scotland later Tuesday to be flown back to London and driven to her official London home, Buckingham Palace.

The Royal Air Force C-17 Globemaster plane that will carry the coffin has in the past been used to evacuate people from Afghanistan and to take humanitarian aid and weapons to Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, U.K. Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston said.

In the early hours of Tuesday, scores of workers were seen cleaning litter and weeds from the road between the air force base where the plane carrying the queen’s coffin will land and central London.

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Jill Lawless and Mike Corder reported from London.

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Follow AP stories on the death of Queen Elizabeth II and Britain’s royal family at https://apnews.com/hub/queen-elizabeth-ii

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