Confidence-building measures are all the rage in Northern Ireland these days. Like children at a birthday party, where every kid must be handed a goodie bag so they won¹t feel left out, the competing ideologies of Ulster must all get surprises.
Today's big surprise is the visit to the province of the Prince of Wales. Prince Charles's presence will act as a boost for the hurt feelings of unionists who are unsure about the new power dispensation in Stormont.
Nationalists got their symbolic treat last week when the Irish president, Mary McAleese, made a whistlestop visit across the border. Some nationalists will attend the royal events, as elected representatives. The moderate nationalists of the SDLP will happily share the same space as the prince as he opens the new theatre in Armagh city, and will attend tomorrow's garden party in Hillsborough Castle for victims of the conflict.
The SDLP still hold on to their policy of refusing royal honours, such as the OBE. Sinn Fein are less forgiving. They will boycott tomorrow's garden party, in protest at Charles's honorary rank as Colonel-in-Chief of the Parachute Regiment, which killed 14 unarmed Roman Catholics in Londonderry in 1972.
In turn, some victims of the IRA who were invited to share tea and canapes with not only the prince, but also Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, have returned their invitations. It is unclear if there will be boycotts or protests from other invitees, relatives of victims of the security forces.
This is the problem with confidence-building measures. Recognition of one side's hurt is often perceived as a snub the pain of the other side. In Charles's case, nationalists will point to the incongruity of Prince Para sympathising with victims of state violence, while loyalists will object to nationalist victims being invited at all. They argue that some victims (i.e. the victims of the IRA) are more "innocent" than others.
Generally forgotten is that Charles has been touched by the conflict too. His godfather and guru, Lord Louis Mountbatten, was killed when the IRA blew up his boat in 1979. On the same day, 18 Paras were blown to smithereens near Warrenpoint. The graffitti on republican areas could have been a specific sneer at the Prince: "14 dead and not forgotten"; "We got 18 and Mountbatten."
Due to the sensitivity over the prince's role with the Paras, a planned visit to Londonderry was cancelled, much to the ire of the Rev Ian Paisley, who demanded (unsuccessfully) a debate in Stormont. It is unclear who actually cancelled the prince's planned launch of an e-commerce waste-management bureau in Londonderry's Magee college. Most local politicians did not know he was coming; nor did the Bloody Sunday Campaign. But someone in either the Palace or Magee college began to add two and two together, and a nightmare scenario emerged of the likely reaction to the Colonel-in-Chief of the Parachute Regiment enthusing about waste recycling, while less than one mile down the road, on the Guild Hall, evidence was being read aloud about Paras shooting unarmed Catholics as they lay injured on the ground.
Royal visits are changing in character. There is a more conscious attempt to include (or not to offend) nationalists. The obligatory visit to the security forces will now avoid images of royalty reviewing heavily-armed British troops. This time, the prince will call on the beleaguered RUC, a visit mitigated by solely concentrating on the drug squad in Ballymena. Isn't everyone supposed to be concerned about drugs?
The long-term agenda is really about Charles's mum. Both governments are convinced that the big symbolic seal on the Good Friday Agreement will be a visit by the Queen to Dublin. Three years ago, the Prince of Wales made his first steps along Grafton Street and Trinity college. During a lunch at Buckingham Palace last November, President McAleese publicly expressed her wish to host the Queen.
Royal visits, like IRA guns and the release of prisoners, have become part of the currency of the peace process.