The Queen has visited Northern Ireland many times over the course of her reign, often to mark significant occasions including her Coronation and Jubilees. In recent years, Her Majesty has become a key figure of reconciliation in the ongoing peace process.
The Queen’s first official visit to Northern Ireland was as Princess Elizabeth in 1945 alongside her parents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. The visit was part of a ‘Victory Tour’ of the UK following the Second World War, and engagements included a Garden Party held for war workers at Belfasts Botanic Gardens.
Her first visit as Queen followed her Coronation in 1953, accompanied by The Duke of Edinburgh. The couple visited Lisburn, Hillsborough, Belfast, Ballymena, Ballymoney, Coleraine, Lisahally and Londonderry, and were greeted by enthusiastic crowds. People came out in their thousands to wave as Her Majesty and His Royal Highness travelled by Royal Train through the Ulster countryside and along the scenic north coast. The Governor of Northern Ireland, Lord Wakehurst, declared a public holiday so that as many people as possible could see the new Monarch.
Her Majesty and His Royal Highness visited many times over the coming decades against the background of The Troubles.
Visits included the opening of the new controversially named ‘Queen Elizabeth II bridge’ in 1966, a Silver Jubilee visit to the New University of Ulster at Coleraine in 1977 and Garden Parties at Hillsborough Castle.
The peace process
Progress made with the peace process in the late 1990s meant that Royal visits took on even greater significance, with The Queen becoming a key figurehead in Anglo-Irish relations.
During her 1997 visit – a year before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement – Her Majesty met Catholic and Protestant schoolchildren from across Northern Ireland involved in a cross-community project.
In 1999 she awarded the George Cross to the Royal Ulster Constabulary to honour the courage and dedication of police officers and their families in Northern Ireland. The RUC Chief Constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, said he was humbled, and spoke of "a momentous day" in the history of the force.
In 2002, The Queen spoke of her fondness for the people of Northern Ireland, and reflected on their troubled history, saying:
A small society has borne a disproportionate burden of division and loss, and so many people, from every part of Northern Ireland represented here today, have been touched by tragedy.
Looking to the future
In 2011, The Queen became the first British Monarch to make an official State Visit to Ireland in 100 years, at the invitation of then-Irish President Mary McAleese. During her speech at the State Banquet, which opened with her speaking Irish, Her Majesty said:
No-one who looked to the future over the past centuries could have imagined the strength of the bonds that are now in place between the governments and the people of our two nations.
In 2012, during a visit to mark her Diamond Jubilee, Her Majesty and former IRA commander Martin McGuinness shook hands for the first time during a charity event in Belfast: a hugely significant gesture for both of them.
The Queen has since met McGuinness on several occasions, including during her 2016 visit when she also visited Belfast's Crumlin Road jail which held hundreds of republican and loyalist prisoners during The Troubles, and is now a museum. During the same visit, Her Majesty met cast and crew on the set of Game of Thrones, which was famously filmed in Northern Ireland.
In May 2021, to mark Northern Ireland’s centenary, The Queen sent a message to the people of Northern Ireland which looked to the future with optimism and hope:
Across generations, the people of Northern Ireland are choosing to build an inclusive, prosperous, and hopeful society, strengthened by the gains of the peace process. May this be our guiding thread in the coming years.