THROUGH THE ARCHIVES: Security blunder as Prince Charles pays a ‘surprise’ visit (1991)

The Prince of Wales went walkabout in Belfast in March 1991 – despite a security leak which had him the talk of the town 12 hours before his arrival.

Wednesday, 14th April 2021, 5:22 pm
A Royal visit was a handy excuse for missing lessons at Deramore High School in March 1991 when Prince Charles paid a visit to Northern Ireland. Pictures: Trevor Dickson and Cecil McCausland/News Letter archives
A Royal visit was a handy excuse for missing lessons at Deramore High School in March 1991 when Prince Charles paid a visit to Northern Ireland. Pictures: Trevor Dickson and Cecil McCausland/News Letter archives

Several hundred people gathered to cheer him in the city centre at the start of a day-long tour.

Police marksmen were on surrounding rooftops as part of a major security operation for what was supposed to have been a hush-hush visit.

No official advance information had been given.

Prince Charles talks to representatives of the Belfast business community during his visit to Northern Ireland in March 1991. Pictures: Trevor Dickson and Cecil McCausland/News Letter archives

But it appeared security had been breached, enabling many people to find out the night before the visit.

Indeed, the News Letter reported that it has been the subject of talk in pubs and even taxi drivers seemed to know about the pending visit.

One well-wisher said that she had come along on the strength of being told the previous evening that Prince Charles was to spend a day in the province.

Unruffled, the Prince braved the continuous rain, smiled and chatted to onlookers.

Delighted collectors from the Northern Ireland Pre-School Playgroups got a tenner from the Prince's bodyguard during during Prince Charles's visit to Northern Ireland in March March 1991. Pictures: Trevor Dickson and Cecil McCausland/News Letter archives

When a girl collecting for a pre-school playgroup thrust her collection tins in the Royal visitor’s direction he relieved an aide of a £10 note and happily obliged.

Police and troops had sealed off the roads, searched nearby shops and car parks for what was the first walkabout in years by such a senior member of the Royal Family on a visit to Northern Ireland.

Indeed the News Letter reported that it had been Prince Charles’s first to Northern Ireland in almost three and a half years, the previous time when he had visited those who had been injured in the Remembrance Day bombing in Enniskillen. His visit had come hot on the heels of other Royal visits by the Duke of Edinburgh in February 1991 and Princes Anne, also in March 1991.

The Prince started his busy day with a visit to High Street and St George’s Church which was celebrating it’s 175th anniversary.

Prince Charles lets the crane take the strain at the multi-million pound Lagan Weir project during his visit to Northern Ireland in March 1991. Pictures: Trevor Dickson and Cecil McCausland/News Letter archives

At George’s Church the Prince met Canon Edgar Turner who outlined the history and architecture of the church which had occupied a site known to have been used for worship since the 14th century.

Canon Turner was accompanied by the Right Reverend Samuel Poyntz, Church of Ireland Bishop of Down and Connor, Vice Lord Lieutenant for Belfast Colonel Robert Maddocks, Lord Mayor Fred Cobain and High Sheriff Joe Coggle, the Prince also heard details of inner city regeneration plans for the area.

Despite the security breach, the Prince abandoned plans to drive and walked the few hundred yards from the church to the River Lagan past the Albert Clock to Donegall Quay where he climbed aboard a crane and manoeuvred into place one of the first piles for a new weir which was to form the centrepiece of a £6.5 million riverside development of homes and offices. Laganside chairman the Duke of Abercorn explained the development and Prince spoke to board members and industrialists and signed the visitors’ book.

He strode through the rain surrounded by aides and anxious security staff. All traffic was halted and pedestrians kept away.

A Royal visit was a handy excuse for missing lessons at Deramore High School in March 1991 when Prince Charles paid a visit to Northern Ireland. Pictures: Trevor Dickson and Cecil McCausland/News Letter archives

Next on his hectic schedule was a quick tour of the Harbour Commissioner’s offices, arranged to satisfy the Prince’s love of architectural splendour.

The the Prince flew across Belfast in a Wessex helicopter of the Queen’s Flight for his next engagement.

Earlier, the heir to the throne had flown from England into RAF Aldergrove where had had been greeted by the Deputy Secretary of State Lord Beltstead and RUC Chief Constable Hugh Annesley.

COOK POPS QUESTION TO PRINCE CHARLES

Schools meals lady Helen Hunter did not mince her words when she met Prince Charles.

“I asked him to come to dinner,” she laughed, having nipped away from the curry and the braised steak to say hello to the Prince outside Deramore High School in south Belfast.

the Prince braves a damp and dull Belfast to meet crowds during his visit. Pictures: Trevor Dickson and Cecil McCausland/News Letter archives

“He laughed and said he hoped I fed them well.”

Mrd Hunter, the canteen supervisor, could afford to adopt a maternal with the Prince, noted the News Letter, as she had met the Queen some years previously.

“I met the Queen and I even made Princess Margaret’s wedding present,” she explained.

The Prince was at Deramore High School to meet some 400 pupils who were involved in the Business in the Community Education Partnership scheme.

The sight of police marksmen taking up position on the rood of the school let the students know something was up.

When the trio of helicopters landed on the playing fields shortly after noon, pupils jammed their noses to classroom windows, glued their eyes on the visitor and a few of the bolder ones yelled “hello Charlie”.

Third former Stephanie Magill, 14, was suffering a little stage-fright that day. The start of the school play was chosen to present a gift of a wooden clock made by the school. Stephanie had won accolades for her role as Grace McBride in Deramore High School’s production of The Blitz.

She said: “I had one practice at curtsey and it was fine.”

The Prince took time to talk to members of the scheme.

It’s aim was to prepare young people for the world of work through work experience and the Prince spend time discussing the value of different programmes which had been developed by the schools in conjunction with commercial, retail and industrial organisations. COOK POPS QUESTION TO PRINCE CHARLES

Schools meals lady Helen Hunter did not mince her words when she met Prince Charles.

“I asked him to come to dinner,” she laughed, having nipped away from the curry and the braised steak to say hello to the Prince outside Deramore High School in south Belfast.

“He laughed and said he hoped I fed them well.”

Mrd Hunter, the canteen supervisor, could afford to adopt a maternal with the Prince, noted the News Letter, as she had met the Queen some years previously.

“I met the Queen and I even made Princess Margaret’s wedding present,” she explained.

The Prince was at Deramore High School to meet some 400 pupils who were involved in the Business in the Community Education Partnership scheme.

The sight of police marksmen taking up position on the rood of the school let the students know something was up.

When the trio of helicopters landed on the playing fields shortly after noon, pupils jammed their noses to classroom windows, glued their eyes on the visitor and a few of the bolder ones yelled “hello Charlie”.

Third former Stephanie Magill, 14, was suffering a little stage-fright that day. The start of the school play was chosen to present a gift of a wooden clock made by the school. Stephanie had won accolades for her role as Grace McBride in Deramore High School’s production of The Blitz.

She said: “I had one practice at curtsey and it was fine.”

The Prince took time to talk to members of the scheme.

It’s aim was to prepare young people for the world of work through work experience and the Prince spend time discussing the value of different programmes which had been developed by the schools in conjunction with commercial, retail and industrial organisations.

‘A WELCOME VISITOR’

The following day the News Letter’s comment reflected on the visit of Prince Charles to Northern Ireland.

It read: “The visit of the Prince of Wales yesterday brightened an otherwise dull, damp day for thousands of Ulster people.

“During his short stay the Prince had personal experience of Ulster hospitality and saw at first hand the fortitude with which people in every walk of life are facing up to the difficulties common to both communities.

“The Prince’s interest in architecture and in the quality of life is well documented so it was natural that he would wish to see examples of architecture hallowed by age and the most modern developments.

“With security so tight there was never any danger of terrorist attack or demonstration. But it is profoundly disturbing that news of his visit should have been leaked in the way that appears to have happened.

“There is a need for selected people to have prior knowledge of such visits. But it this instance someone has broken a confidence. That is unprofessional and potentially dangerous.

“The last thing we need in Northern Ireland at the moment is any form of demonstration against a member of the Royal Family all of whom have shown deep and genuine concern for all the people of the province.”

The Prince was 90 minutes behind schedule when he left RAF Aldergrove after nearly 10 hours visiting Northern Ireland.

Prince Charles shares a laugh with a well-wisher during his visit to Northern Ireland in March March 1991. Pictures: Trevor Dickson and Cecil McCausland/News Letter archives
Olympic gold medalist Mary Peters shares a joke with Prince Charles during his visit to Northern Ireland in March 1991. Pictures: Trevor Dickson and Cecil McCausland/News Letter archives