Queen joins Stormont’s top two for poetry event steeped in symbolism

After meeting a prime minister, a taoiseach and a president, a royal encounter seemed to be the next logical step for Stormont’s new leaders.

As the Queen entered the Red Room at Hillsborough Castle dressed in green, she addressed the First and deputy First Minister, Michelle O’Neill and Emma Little-Pengelly, by their first names and quickly told them that Charles sent his “very, very best wishes”.

Ms O’Neill and Ms Little-Pengelly responded with equal warmth, sending their regards to the King, who is undergoing treatment for cancer.

Camilla said the King was very disappointed not to be joining them in Northern Ireland.

Queen Camilla visit to Northern Ireland
Camilla attends an event hosted by the Queen’s Reading Room to mark World Poetry Day at Hillsborough Castle (Liam McBurney/PA)

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris posed with the three women for official photographs, before being gently asked to step aside so the Queen could be photographed alone with the two Stormont leaders. Camilla said: “It’s just the three ladies now.”

There was a time when Sinn Fein ministers meeting members of the royal family made headlines around the world. Now, it just seemed like another day at the office.

Ms O’Neill, Northern Ireland’s first nationalist First Minister, attended the funeral of the late Queen and the coronation of Charles. Later she said it had been lovely to meet Camilla again and welcome her to the Co Down castle where they listened to a number of poetry recitals.

She said: “A very pleasant event, listening to locally renowned poets, recitals on the stage, a very moving event, it was great to welcome her here.

“I sent my regards to the King in terms of his health, and wished him well, and also to the Princess of Wales.”

Queen Camilla visit to Northern Ireland
Camilla with (left to right) poet Sinead Morrissey, Jamaican poet Raquel McKee, actor Frances Tomelty, contemporary poet Micheal Longley, actor Ian McElhinney and poet Paul Muldoon (Liam McBurney/PA)

Ms O’Neill and Ms Little-Pengelly have recently returned from the US where they met President Joe Biden and were hailed in Washington for their efforts in leading the powersharing executive. They have also hosted Rishi Sunak and Leo Varadkar at Stormont.

While they have insisted they are not interested in gesture politics, Thursday’s event at Hillsborough Castle was another step in reinforcing the sense of partnership which the Sinn Fein and DUP leaders are determined to forge.

The group next moved to the grand surroundings of the castle’s Throne Room for the literary event hosted by Camilla’s Reading Room charity.

The Queen’s love of literature is well known and she marked World Poetry Day by watching a series of spoken word performances from Derry Girls’ actor Ian McElhinney and actress Frances Tomelty. Poems were read in English, Irish and the Ulster Scots dialect.

A small crowd of around 100 sat in silence as the words of some of Northern Ireland’s most renowned poets – Louis MacNiece, John Hewitt and Seamus Heaney – were read aloud.

Contemporary Northern Ireland poetry was also represented with Sinead Morrissey reading The Millihelen, her poem about the Titanic. Raquel McKee, originally from Jamaica, delivered an energetic reading.

Queen Camilla visit to Northern Ireland
Poet Michael Longley reciting his poem Ceasefire (Liam McBurney/PA)

However, perhaps the symbolism of the occasion was best captured by Michael Longley, Northern Ireland’s most famous living poet, who read Ceasefire, a work which tells of the search for peace and reconciliation.

Ms Little-Pengelly said the event touched on many of the themes that she and Ms O’Neill have been trying to promote.

She said: “Her Majesty the Queen has done huge amounts of work in terms of promoting reading and this is very much part of her Queen’s Reading Room series of events.

“It was fantastic, and the poems were absolutely amazing and very much touched on the complexity of our history, heritage and identities here which is very much part of what we have been trying to promote as well.”