Prince Charles shakes hands with former leader of IRA political wing Gerry Adams

Britain's Prince Charles (left) shakes hands with Gerry Adams at the National University of Ireland in Galway, Ireland on Tuesday. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Britain's Prince Charles (left) shakes hands with Gerry Adams at the National University of Ireland in Galway, Ireland on Tuesday. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

GALWAY, Ireland (AFP) - Prince Charles on Tuesday became the first British royal to meet Irish republican leader Gerry Adams, on a visit that will take him to the scene of his great-uncle's murder by the IRA.

Charles, the heir to the British throne, shook hands with Adams, the veteran president of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the now-defunct Irish Republican Army paramilitary group.

The prince, 66, met Adams at the National University of Ireland's campus in Galway on the west coast, shortly after starting a two-day visit to the republic.

Adams leaned forward several times as they spoke for less than a minute, before introducing Charles to other guests.

Speaking before the visit, Adams referred to Charles by his title as colonel-in-chief of the British army's Parachute Regiment.

Soldiers from the regiment were found responsible for several killings during the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre - one of the worst atrocities in the Northern Ireland conflict, known as "The Troubles".

"But he (Charles) also has been bereaved by the actions of republicans," Adams said.

"Thankfully the conflict is over. But there remains unresolved injustices. These must be rectified and a healing process developed."

Adams has always rejected allegations that he was a key figure in the IRA, which killed Charles's beloved great-uncle and mentor Earl Mountbatten in 1979.

The IRA blew up a boat carrying Mountbatten off the west coast of Ireland, in one of the most high-profile assassinations during three decades of sectarian unrest that killed 3,500 people.

The 79-year-old, who was the last viceroy of India and a father figure to Charles, was killed along with two relatives, and Paul Maxwell, a 14-year-old local boy who worked on the fishing boat.

Charles was expected to travel on Wednesday to the rugged stretch of coastline near where the killing took place in Mullaghmore, becoming the first royal to do so on a visit that palace aides have said is aimed at promoting "peace and reconciliation".

The visit is to include a religious service in a nearby church and will be an emotional moment for the prince.

Mountbatten's grandson, Timothy Knatchbull, who survived the blast, is also expected to attend, along with Peter McHugh, a local resident who helped pull bodies from the sea, British media reported.

Adams and other senior Sinn Fein members boycotted Queen Elizabeth II's groundbreaking visit to Ireland in 2011, the first by a British monarch since the future Republic of Ireland gained independence from Britain in 1922.

But Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, a member of Sinn Fein who was an IRA commander in the 1970s, later shook hands with the queen during her visit to Belfast in 2012 - a historic meeting.

Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan said the visit would celebrate Irish-British ties "while also acknowledging more difficult moments from the past".

"Reconciliation and dealing with the past are issues that can still challenge us," he added.

Speaking at the university, Charles kicked off the trip by praising the "wonderful spirit" of the Irish and the "fun of being in Ireland".

"There is a magic, a unique magic about Ireland which is totally irresistible. So wherever I go in the world and meet Irish people, I promise you, it always makes me feel better," he said.

A major security operation was in place for Charles' visit, days after Irish police found guns and explosive materials in a series of raids and quizzed a number of men, including a top dissident republican.

Charles and his wife Camilla will then travel to Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, for further engagements on Thursday and Friday.

This is Charles's third visit to the Republic of Ireland. In 1995, he became the first member of the royal family to visit the country since independence. He also visited in 2002.

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