Princess and Primate give Ulster a much needed boost (June 1981)

Princess Alexandra, the Queen’s cousin, gave Ulster people a morale-booster in June 1981. The Princess, one of the most popular members of the Royal Family, spent eight hours in Northern Ireland visiting Bangor, Banbridge, and the consecration of the new wing for Belfast’s St Anne’s Cathedral.

Tuesday, 29th June 2021, 12:14 pm
Princess Alexandra stands for hymn singing beside Secretary of State Humphrey Atkins, left, and the Lord Lieutenant for Belfast Lord Glentoran during the consecration service in St Anne's Cathedral in June 1981. Picture: Trevor Dickson/News Letter archives
Princess Alexandra stands for hymn singing beside Secretary of State Humphrey Atkins, left, and the Lord Lieutenant for Belfast Lord Glentoran during the consecration service in St Anne's Cathedral in June 1981. Picture: Trevor Dickson/News Letter archives

The Royal visit, noted the News Letter, was only five days after Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s tour of Belfast city centre.

At St Anne’s Cathedral, the Princess heard the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Robert Runcie, praise the “bridge-builders” in Northern Ireland who had carried on against the background of death and destruction.

It was a fitting finale for the Princess’s stay in the province – an impressive occasion which was attended by a distinguished 1,500 strong congregation that included the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Humphrey Atkins, newly-elected Belfast Lord Mayor Mrs Grace Bannister, and heads of the main churches in Northern Ireland.

Pictured during the service at St Anne's in June 1981 are the Bishop of Connor, the Right Reverend Dr Arthur Butler, and the Dean of Belfast, the Very Reverend Samuel Crooks. Picture: Trevor Dickson/News Letter archivesv

Earlier the Princess had also been received by enthusiastic crowds in Bangor and Banbridge.

On this, her fourth visit to Northern Ireland, Princess Alexandra went first to Bangor where she visited the Debretta clothing factory and in Banbridge she opened new civic buildings for the district council, and 2,000 schoolchildren were present to greet her. She had arrived by helicopter at the grounds of Banbridge Academy.

Security throughout the day was tight and a 24 hour watch had been kept on Belfast Cathedral. The News Letter reported: “Ironically, it was one of the quietest days in the province for several months.”

TIGHT SECURITY

As her visited conclude at the cathedral more than 500 police were on duty in the vicinity. Security had been equally tight in Bangor and Banbridge, where in spit of it all the atmosphere was “relaxes and joyous” for yet another Royal visit.

After the cathedral service, the Princess was whisked to Aldergrove for the journey home in the helicopter of the Queen’s Flight.

At the consecration service, the Princess sat with the Secretary of State Humphrey Atkins and was received at the steps of the the cathedral by Dean Samuel Crooks.

Among the dignitaries present were the Most Reverend Dr William Philbin, Roman Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor; former Northern Ireland Governor Lord Gray of Naunton and former Presbyterian Moderator, the Right Reverend Dr Donald Craig.

The night was a triumph for Dean Crooks. Since taking over at the cathedral he had had profound faith in “the generosity of the people of Belfast and beyond”.

The only dampener on the night were the placards proclaiming “Runcie is a Romanist” and “Runcie and Rome in joint worship” were on display around Belfast City Hall during a civic reception for those taking part in the service at the cathedral. The protest, by about two dozen members of the Reverend Ian Paisley’s Free Presbyterian Church, was tightly controlled by detachments of police.

VISIT TAKES CIVIC CHIEF BY SURPRISE

Princess Alexandra’s visit to Banbridge in June 1981 was such a closely guarded secret that even the chairman of the district council, Will Davidson, did not know about it.

Banbridge draper Mr Davidson had been elected early that week and the secret visit was kept from him until after the council meeting.

“I did not know who was visiting – it was all kept so secret until yesterday morning,” Mr Davdson told the News Letter as he waited for the Princess on the steps of the new district council offices.

The route through the Co Down town was lined with crowds as the Princess’s cavalcade wound towards the new building.

Schoolchildren shouted and waved Union Jacks, as the official car passed, and overhead red, white and blue bunting waved in the strong breeze.

Princess Alexandra, smiling brightly and wearing a turquoise frock coat with matching hat, was met at the steps by Mr Davidson and other members of the Banbridge District Council.

After a fanfare from the RUC band, the Princess cut a white tape to open the new offices, with their Georgian-style facade.

The Royal helicopter whisked Princess Alexandra from Clandeboye Road, Bangor, in June , after her visit to the Debretta factory in the town. Picture: Trevor Dickson/News Letter archives

She was then escorted inside the £750,000 building, where in the council chamber – before 130 guests representing the civic, business, industrial and farming communities – she unveiled a plaque commemorating the opening.

In the Princess’s party were Secretary of State Humphrey Atkins, and his wife Margaret, Education Minister, Lord Elton and his wife, Environment Minister David Mitchell and his wife.

As a thank you from the council and the town, Mr Davidson presented Princess Alexandra with a locally-manufactured linen tablecloth and set of napkins, inscribed with the town’s coat of arms and motto: “Per Deum Et Industriam” (For God and Industry).

After a chat with some of the guests, the Princess and her party left the offices, to the accompaniment of music from the band, and walked several hundred yards past cheering crowds to the Downshire Leisure Centre.

Among those who had stood in the cold wind were girls from Ballyroney Presbyterian Church Girls’ Brigade Company, including little Alexandra Wilson, from the company’s Explorers’ Section.

She told the News Letter that she was excited about meeting the Princess and said that it was “well worth the wait in the cold”.

Other youth organisations, including the Boys’ Brigade, Girl Guides and Brownies, lined the short route, along with representatives from the UDR and St John Ambulance Brigade.

As the Princess walked to the building, children from Banbridge High School pressed posies of flowers into her hands and she was so overwhelmed by the small gifts that she had to ask for help to carry them.

The district council’s recreation officer, Gilbert Honeyford, members of his staff and representatives of district sports organisations were presented to the Princess before she saw some of the facilities of the leisure centre, which was on the site of a former railway goods depot.

Before leaving by car for the helicopter journey to Hillsborough, she unveiled a plaque marking the opening of the centre.

‘VIOLENCE HOLDS BACK BRIDGE BUILDING’

Destruction and the “sordid futility of violence” were hampering bridge building between the two communities in Northern Ireland declared Dr Robert Runcie in Belfast.

He said means existed in society for change by peaceful means, by building trust and confidence between the communities. All Christian churches agreed that no structure created by violence was stable or good.

The Archbishop of Canterbury coupled his outspoken condemnation of violence with praise for the work of the security forces and the judiciary.

COURAGE FOR A PEACEFUL CHANGE

“Thank God there are still men and women with the courage to put their own lives at risk by choosing the community, and the possibilities of peaceful change and evolution by serving in the police force and the judiciary and all the public services,” Dr Runcie said.

His warning on the danger of violence was forthright: “Violence succeeds only in breeding violence and brings about a degeneration in the moral character of those who live by it.”

The Archbishop was scathing when he attacked the paramilitaries in Northern Ireland.

“Some spokesmen for the ‘hooded men’ seem to speak as if violence were some kind of scalpel, to be wielded by a surgeon in an operation to cut out what they regard as the diseased part of society and to return the body to health,” he said.

“In reality, the instrument, the scalpel, is diseased itself. It spread infection throughout the body and infects those who take it up.”

Dr Runcie said “tragically misplaced passion” came from bad myths, one-sided ways of looking at the past which exaggerated the “faults and atrocities of the other side” and placed a halo of romance around the martyrs for “one’s own points of view”.

He said the Christian Church had the privilege of holding up better visions against the “bad myths of a romanticised and tendentious way of looking at history”.

Belfast Cathedral, “built in the eye of a storm”, was founded on that better vision said Dr Runcie.

He said: “This cathedral is a sign of the patient Christian work that is going on in the eye of the storm.”

The Church, he said, had to take its stand ion the side of “bridge-builders, not the bridge-breakers”.

“The vocation of all Christians is to be bridge builders. Here since 1899 in this cathedral you have been patiently building bridges between man and God and the different sections of the community. You have also been building hope in this community and that work of building goes on.

“Amid all that is negative and hostile to life and to love, this is a day to celebrate.”

MP CALLS FOR ROYAL VISIT ‘LEAK’ PROBE

Amid the celebrations of Princess Alexandra’s visit to Northern Ireland a row was brewing.

Unionist leader Jim Molyneaux demanded a top-level inquiry into an alleged police “leak” to the Reverend Ian Paisley about the hitherto hush-hush visit of Princess Alexandra to Belfast.

The row blew up after the DUP chief publicly revealed that the RUC had given him the information in connection with the long-awaited consecration ceremony at St Anne’s Cathedral.

Mr Molyneaux reacted by calling for an urgent meeting with Secretary of State Atkins to discuss what he called “this serious RUC breach of security”.

He said such information should always be restricted to people in a “need to know” category.

Mr Paisley disclosed the Royal visit plan in a statement in which he said members of his Free Presbyterian Church intended to hold a demonstration and protest march at the cathedral.

He made it clear that their target was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Robert Runcie, who was the preacher at the cathedral to mark the consecration by the Bishop of Connor, the Most Reverend Dr Arthur Butler, of the new north transept.

The Paisley statement said: “The RUC have now informed me that a Royal visitor is coming to the service and have requested that in view of the strain put on the security forces we do not proceed with this protest.

“In view of the pressure on the RUC we have acceded to this request. As the Royal personage is not going to the City Hall, we will be having a token picket there when Dr Runcie attends a reception after the cathedral service.”

With RUC headquarters refusing to comment on the “leak”, Mr Molyneaux hit out at what he described as a “quite intolerable” situation.

“It raises a question mark in the minds of the public, making them question just how secure is information given to the RUC in confidence,” the Unionist leader said.

“The whole episode is quite horrifying. When the Prime Minister came to the province last week, the visit was kept secret until she was actually here.

“But on this occasion there has been 48 hours notice of the Royal visit and this is intolerable. We need to be assured there will be no such leaks in the future.

“Such ‘advance notice’ is an incitement to troublemakers to create scenes and possibly put lives in danger.” The Royal visit, noted the News Letter, was only five days after Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s tour of Belfast city centre.

At St Anne’s Cathedral, the Princess heard the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Robert Runcie, praise the “bridge-builders” in Northern Ireland who had carried on against the background of death and destruction.

It was a fitting finale for the Princess’s stay in the province – an impressive occasion which was attended by a distinguished 1,500 strong congregation that included the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Humphrey Atkins, newly-elected Belfast Lord Mayor Mrs Grace Bannister, and heads of the main churches in Northern Ireland.

Earlier the Princess had also been received by enthusiastic crowds in Bangor and Banbridge.

On this, her fourth visit to Northern Ireland, Princess Alexandra went first to Bangor where she visited the Debretta clothing factory and in Banbridge she opened new civic buildings for the district council, and 2,000 schoolchildren were present to greet her. She had arrived by helicopter at the grounds of Banbridge Academy.

Security throughout the day was tight and a 24 hour watch had been kept on Belfast Cathedral. The News Letter reported: “Ironically, it was one of the quietest days in the province for several months.”