By Rebecca Black, PA
The Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland has acknowledged the “significant impact” of the British royal family in terms of reconciliation.
Michelle O’Neill also explained why she made a public statement on Prince Philip’s death at the age of 99 on Friday as the “right thing to do” as Deputy First Minister.
First Minister Arlene Foster said she welcomed that Ms O’Neill “had moved to show respect to the royal family and the nation as a whole”.
There will be a special sitting of the Northern Ireland Assembly later to allow all MLAs the opportunity to pay tribute to Prince Philip.
Ms O’Neill said she met Philip once as she accompanied former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness on his historic attendance at a royal event at Windsor Castle in 2014.
Sinn Féin MPs still refuse to take their seats in the UK House of Commons over the oath of allegiance to the royal family.
On Friday, Ms O’Neill made a statement of condolence to the royal family while wearing black outside Belfast City Hall.
On Monday she said Queen Elizabeth and the royal family have made “significant interventions”, including her visit to Dublin.
The Sinn Féin vice president also said Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip’s meeting with Mr McGuinness in Belfast “marked a very important step on our journey”, acknowledging they had been directly impacted in the Troubles.
The IRA killed Philip’s uncle Louis Mountbatten in 1979.
“We need to reconcile our people but also reconcile our islands because there has been a challenging relationship over many, many years,” she told the BBC.
“The Queen and Prince Philip and their family were directly impacted by the conflict, like too many families here, and I think that, like every family, it is regrettable that any family has endured any kind of sorrow or pain as a result of bereavement due to the conflict.
“I do think that you have to take from the example which they themselves set, even though they did endure personal loss, the royal family has set about working towards the advancement of peace and reconciliation, and they demonstrated that with their words and deeds over recent years.”
Ms O’Neill added: “I’m elected to be the deputy First Minister for all, joint head of government for all people, so therefore I recognise the sense of loss that will be felt by many people across our community, particularly those of unionist tradition or those who have a British identity.
“I think this is something that’s a very difficult time and a challenging time for those people, so I think it’s really, really important that I stand and don’t sit back but come right out to the front to say that I acknowledge that loss, that hurt and that people will be feeling this loss.
“I just think it’s really, really important terms of respect for each other, for two different communities between our islands that I would speak in the way in which I have.”
Ms O’Neill said she has not had any negative response to the move.
“I have certainly heard nothing to the contrary, I’m quite sure that there’ll be people who have their own view on it but, by and large, I would expect that people thought it was just the respectful thing to do.
Mrs Foster expressed her own condolences to the royal family, echoing the Duke of York’s comments that a “huge void” had been left in that family as well as national life.
“On behalf of all of the people of Northern Ireland, we send our love and and best wishes to Her Majesty the Queen and to all of the royal family,” she said.
The DUP leader welcomed Ms O’Neill’s comments.
“This is such a pivotal moment for us all,” she said.
“I think that Sinn Féin learned from the mistake that they made in 2011, when Her Majesty visited the Republic of Ireland and they decided to boycott that visit.
“I think they learned from that and in 2012 Her Majesty shook hands with the then deputy first minister Martin McGuinness.
“I think the royal family and Prince Philip, who had lost so grievously his uncle in 1979, have played a huge role in reconciliation and bringing everybody together in Northern Ireland and indeed across the Commonwealth.”
Ms Foster also commended the royal family for being “so meticulous” in sticking to the coronavirus restrictions.
“Again we’re going to say that this weekend when just 30 people will enter the chapel at Windsor to mark the life of a remarkable man,” she said.
“But I know that there will be many across the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth, the world watching with the royal family, so that they can take part from a distance.”