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In Northern Ireland, Mourning, Yes, but Symbolism, Too

LONDON — During a national tour of grief, King Charles III has heard many condolences for the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II. Few were as tinged with symbolism as uttered that Tuesday by the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Alex Maskey, at a royal castle outside Belfast.

Mr Maskey is a member of Sinn Fein, the Irish nationalist party, which is now the largest in the area. He was once jailed for his involvement with the Irish Republican Army. It’s a sign of how much has changed that Charles, whose great-uncle Louis Mountbatten was killed by the IRA in 1979, smiled sadly when Mr. Maskey switched to Gaelic to say, “May she rest in peace.”

Charles and his mother each played a part in trying to reconcile the Irish and the British after the bloody tide of the Troubles. The fruits of their efforts were vividly seen in a bereaved Belfast. But the new king also faced a Northern Ireland drifting inexorably, albeit slowly, towards the Republic of Ireland – another part of the United Kingdom that could slip away during his reign.

“The Queen’s death comes at a time when trade unionists in Northern Ireland are feeling particularly anxious and uncertain about the future,” said Katy Hayward, a professor of politics at Queen’s University, Belfast.

“But it also puts nationalist leaders in a difficult position,” said Professor Hayward. “Many nationalists feel uncomfortable with the king. At the same time, they have to take into account other people who think differently.”

The unionists, who want to stay with the UK, fear the post-Brexit trade rules known as the Northern Ireland Protocol will erode their ties with Britain, hastening the day when the growing nationalist, predominantly Roman The area’s Catholic population will disappear. vote to leave and unite with Ireland.

Under pressure from union members, British Prime Minister Liz Truss has threatened to scrap trade rules, sparking tensions with the European Union and Ireland that some fear could ignite a full-blown trade war.

Yet Northern Ireland’s fraught politics took a backseat on Tuesday to a day of ritual and mourning for the Queen, who spoke to her appeal on both sides of the Irish border. Her visit to the Republic of Ireland in 2011 – in which she wore green – expressed her regret at Britain’s painful history with Ireland and tried some Gaelic – is remembered there as an electric moment of personal diplomacy.

Mr. Maskey praised the Queen for recognizing the power of a small gesture to bridge bitter gulfs between people. Elizabeth, he said, understood that “one tradition is not diminished by reaching out to show respect to another.”

Charles replied that the Queen “never ceased to pray for the best times for this place and its people, whose stories she knew, whose sorrow our family had felt and for whom she had great affection and respect.” She saw her role, he said, as one who could try to bring together “those whom history had separated.”

The new king promised to continue that work. After making 19 trips to Northern Ireland with his wife Camilla, he can claim a credible record as a diplomat. He has also contacted Ireland, despite the blow of the murder of Lord Mountbatten, which deprived him of a beloved mentor.

In 2010, Charles attended a gala in his honor at the Irish Embassy in London, where he mingled with guests such as the singer Bob Geldof, was serenaded with Irish music and was toasted by a famous peppery Irish radio personality, Terry Wogan, who thanked him, with a wink, for “800 years of oppression.”

Bobby McDonagh, the former Irish ambassador to London who hosted the party, said Charles was thrilled with the reception. Mr McDonagh recalled pointing out that the embassy was opposite Buckingham Palace’s garden, where he had played as a child. If Charles had known that at the time, he told his host, he would have thrown pebbles against the windows of the embassy.

In 2015, on a visit to Ireland, Charles played his own part in the reconciliation by shaking hands with Gerry Adams, who was then the leader of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the underground IRA. once led the British armed forces and had a holiday home in Ireland, as a legitimate target in the IRA’s armed struggle against the British government.

mr. Adams did not apologize for the murder during that meeting. But last year, the day after the Queen’s husband Prince Philip was buried, Sinn Fein’s current leader Mary Lou McDonald issued a landmark apology. “Sure, I’m sorry that happened,” she told a London radio station. “Of course that’s heartbreaking.”

In Belfast on Tuesday, King Charles greeted the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, who attended a memorial service for the Queen. That made him the first head of state to meet the king since his accession.

He also took note of the new political landscape in a brief conversation with the leader of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill. As head of the largest party, she has been appointed as the prime minister in the area’s power-sharing government. But the union members have refused to participate, citing the UK’s standoff with Brussels over trade rules.

“What are you now, the biggest party is you?” the king asked Mrs. O’Neill.

She replied, “We are indeed.”

“All that skill and ingenuity,” Charles said with a smile.

mr. Maskey, the speaker of the meeting, gestured to the nearby figure of Jeffrey M. Donaldson, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, which once held that status. “Don’t tell Jeffrey that now,” he said.

Ms O’Neill struck a conciliatory note last week saying the Queen has maintained ties with “those of us who are Irish and who share a different political allegiance and aspirations with herself and her government.”

Unionists enjoyed the display of royal pageantry and said they were grateful that Charles had come so quickly. For now, “we haven’t thought about protocol,” said David Campbell, chairman of the Loyalist Communities Council, which represents a group of pro-union paramilitary groups who vehemently oppose the trade rules.

Still, some scholars wondered whether the long-term unionist populace would find the king as comforting as his mother. Many of them particularly identified with the queen’s religious beliefs, said Professor Hayward.

Charles comes across as a less conservative figure, embracing interfaith communication and issues like climate change. That doesn’t appeal to deeply conservative Democratic Unionists, said Professor Hayward. He’s also divorced, she noted, which annoys some older union members.

In union and loyalist strongholds in Belfast and Derry, the image of the Queen is ubiquitous in shop windows and on murals. Pictures of Charles are less. The English king who figures prominently in unionist iconography is William of Orange, who won a famous military victory over a Catholic king, James II, in 1690.

Most experts said they doubted the transition from Elizabeth to Charles would change political dynamics in Northern Ireland, which are rooted in causes going back much further than the beginning of her reign.

“I would expect Charles to perform fairly well as king,” said Mr McDonagh, the former Irish ambassador to London. “But regardless of how he performs, I wouldn’t expect it to diminish the union members’ desire to stay with the union in the least. I don’t think it will change the nationalists’ aspirations either.”