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Tuesday, 14 May, 2002, 21:56 GMT 22:56 UK
Jubilee tour diary: Northern Ireland
Nick Higham on the Queens Jubilee tour
Nick Higham is following the Queen's Jubilee tour
The BBC's arts and media correspondent Nick Higham is following the Queen on her Jubilee tour of the UK.

This is the fourth in a series of dispatches from around the country.


Tuesday 14 May

The Queen is in Northern Ireland. For security reasons the visit has not been publicised in advance.

Nonetheless several hundred people have turned out at her first public engagement in a little village called Ballinamallard in County Fermanagh, a few miles north of Enniskillen.

Though a tiny place, Ballinamallard has made its mark on history.

A 19th century Church of Ireland rector, Reverend James McDonald, had several daughters who married or mothered a collection of famous men including the Victorian painter Edward Burne-Jones, the poet Rudyard Kipling and the Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.

This is strongly Protestant and unionist territory.

Union jacks are flying from the lamp posts, there is bunting across the road and across the car park at Fishers Engineering.

Perhaps the large crowds have been alerted to her visit on the police grapevine.

A good many policemen live in Ballinamallard, I'm told, staffing the multitude of police stations scattered across this border region in the far south west of Northern Ireland.

Smiling and relaxed

The Queen's first visit is to Rascals Play Station, a children's nursery and after-school club catering for both communities.

It was recently opened in the village's old railway station to replace a Protestant play group in the church hall (which some Catholics wouldn't use on principle) and another in a rundown portakabin.

Linda Beatty who runs it, tells me some 70% of the children are Protestant, from Ballinamallard itself, and the rest Catholics.

Queen with children
The Queen looked relaxed at Rascals play group
The Queen goes through the classrooms watching the children at work (some of the younger ones have to be discouraged from bulldozing her with their pedal tractors) and then pops out the back to see the new lock-up workshops owned by the grandly-named Ballinamallard Enterprise Centre.

In one a father and son, the Minns, make furniture ("rather like Lord Linley," in the words of a Northern Ireland Office press release, clearly anxious to make the Queen feel at home).

Then the Queen, smiling and looking thoroughly relaxed, plants a tree in the little garden with a spade handed her by Mrs Beatty's son.

Five year-old Grace Verney (whose grandmother is the widow of the last station master) hands her a posy of flowers.

Omagh bomb site

Both Rascals and the Enterprise Centre are tributes to local community spirit - the kind of positive action by local people which this Jubilee visit is meant to recognise.

They are also a tribute to Northern Ireland's grants culture, built as they have been with some 300,000 from sources as diverse as the International Fund for Ireland and the National Lottery's New Opportunities Fund.

From Ballinamallard the royal helicopter moves on to Omagh - and a scheduled visit to see the town's library and meet representatives of another organisation trying to build a new future for Northern Ireland, Omagh 2010.

Would she also visit the site of the devastating 1998 Omagh bomb? It seems hard to believe she could visit the town without doing so - even if the ostensible aim of this Jubilee tour of the province is to look forward, not back.

Sure enough, half an hour before her arrival, the authorities duly announce an "unscheduled" diversion to see the rebuilding near the bomb site and to look at the town's memorial garden.

Privately the Northern Ireland Office maintains the diversion was always intended.

Charlie Rae, the Sun's royal reporter, and Michael Gallagher, whose son Aidan died in the bombing, think otherwise.

Both told the NIO that not to visit the bomb site would be seen as a snub and could turn into a public relations disaster. Both think they helped bring about a change of heart.

Riots

Northern Ireland remains the one part of the United Kingdom where a sizeable segment of the population actively dispute the Queen's role as head of state.

Here she is at one and the same time the ultimate symbol of unionism and, to republicans, the representative of a hostile, occupying power.

Queen in Omagh
In Omagh the Queen visited the scene of the 1998 bomb
Yet it is a measure of how far Northern Ireland has come in recent years that her arrival has proved largely uncontroversial.

When she came here as part of her Silver Jubilee tour in 1977 there were demonstrations in Belfast by Sinn Fein which developed into riots and someone threw a brick at her car.

This time, Sinn Fein has decided, in effect, to ignore the visit - and the government and Northern Ireland Executive have clearly tried to meet the republicans half-way.

Better future

At Stormont, though the Democratic Unionists suggested she should address the Assembly, she was invited instead to give a short speech in the Parliament Building's great hall once normal working hours were over.

That way Sinn Fein members like Martin McGuinness could absent themselves without appearing to boycott the proceedings - and there were no embarrassing empty seats in the debating chamber itself.

Throughout her 50 years on the throne the Queen has made it her business to avoid any appearance of political involvement.

She has succeeded pretty well - but in Northern Ireland her very presence is a partisan political statement.

She knows it, and everyone else knows it, but in the process of building a better future for the province on this occasion almost everyone has chosen to ignore it


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