King Charles spoke to the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party about its stance on the Northern Ireland Brexit deal as he attended a ceremony in Belfast following the Queen’s death.
Charles was paying his first visit to Northern Ireland as monarch and had a lengthy conversation with Sir Jeffrey Donaldson about the European Union and NI protocol.
During a reception in Hillsborough Castle, the royal residence in Northern Ireland, Sir Jeffrey told the new sovereign that he believed the situation could be resolved.
Charles also spoke to Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill about the Northern Ireland Assembly and its current impasse.
And Ms O’Neill, whose party are staunch republicans, wished King Charles well and said she was sorry for the loss of his mother.
The Brexit deal’s Northern Ireland protocol, which was negotiated by Boris Johnson, has caused consternation among some unionists in the territory.
The treaty is designed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland after Brexit but it has introduced new trade barriers in the Irish Sea – which unionists are ideologically opposed to.
The impasse over the agreement – which commands popular support among the general public in NI according to opinion polls – has sparked a power-sharing crisis at Stormont, with the DUP withdrawing from the Executive in protest.
In London, the UK government has threatened to override parts of the deal, but the European Commission says this would break international law.
Brussels already has open legal actions against the UK government for not properly implementing parts of the protocol.
Speaking at the reception Sinn Fein vice president Ms O’Neill told Charles that the late Queen’s “life and legacy will be fondly remembered by those of a British identity here who with great pride and devotion held her very dear”.
Ms O’Neill added: “She led by example in advancing peace and recombination and the building of relationships with those of us who are Irish, and who share a different political allegiance and aspirations to herself and her government.
“I hope this continues now that you are King and the British-Irish relationship strengthens and evolves as one era ends, and a new one begins in these changing times.”
The reception was attended by a wide mix of sports, politics and business people from Northern Ireland, including Alliance leader Naomi Long and the SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole.
King Charles pledged to “seek the welfare” of all Northern Ireland’s people.
In a brief speech at Hillsborough Castle he said the late Queen was aware of her position in bringing together divided communities “whom history had separated”.
“Through all those years, she never ceased to pray for the best of times for this place and for its people, whose stories she knew, whose sorrows our family had felt, and for whom she had a great affection and regard,” he said.
“My mother felt deeply, I know, the significance of the role she herself played in bringing together those whom history had separated, and in extending a hand to make possible the healing of long-held hurts.”
He added: “Now, with that shining example before me, and with God’s help, I take up my new duties resolved to seek the welfare of all the inhabitants of Northern Ireland.”
Later, Charles attended a memorial service at St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast, where he pointedly went to greet Irish president Michael D Higgins and warmly clasped his hand.
The two heads of state, who have developed a strong personal relationship in recent years, are keenly aware of symbolism.
As the new King ascended the steps of the cathedral, he turned and waved to the crowd that had waited to see a moment of history.
Students from Belfast Royal Academy Kaitlyn, 17, Lucy-Beth, 17, and Sophia, 18, were among those invited to gather at the metal barricades at St Anne’s.
“It’s a historic moment,” said Sophia, with Lucy-Beth adding that it was “bittersweet” coming to see the new monarch while also mourning the death of the Queen.
“He waved and seemed interested. It was nice to see he appreciated the crowd,” Kaitlyn said.
Florence, 17, from Bloomfield Collegiate School, said it was a “monumental” occasion and very symbolic to have Ms O’Neill and Sir Jeffrey unite in showing their respects to the late Queen.
She said that a couple of decades ago no one would have expected such unity.
“I’m so proud to be a part of it,” she said.