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Charles - Shaking Hands With History

21/05/2015 14:41 BST | Updated 21/05/2016 10:59 BST

The headlines were all about a historic handshake, after Prince Charles met the Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams on Tuesday. Add in the landmark speech he made the following day, and the headlines were not wrong. This really was the heir to the British throne shaking hands not only with history, but also with his own personal destiny.

His gestures of reconciliation towards the Irish Republicans who killed his beloved mentor Lord Mountbatten show Charles taking a moral lead. That, traditionally, is what the Royal Family are supposed to do - but in recent decades they haven't always found it easy. The breakdown of Charles's own first marriage contributed to the loss of authority - but today that all seems swept away.

It was Gerry Adams who asked for the meeting, but however personally difficult he found it, Prince Charles must have been eager to agree. Barely a week ago, the publication of the 'black spider' memos (so called for the spidery handwriting in which the Prince of Wales sent many missives of advice to government ministers) saw Charles under attack.

Critics said he had imperilled the impartiality of the monarchy - that it was inappropriate for the future king to voice opinions on subjects as unarguably political as the funding of the military. Almost worse was the fact that other opinions concerned the plight of the albatross, and the wonderfully-named Patagonian toothfish: easy grounds for mockery.

Perhaps it's for us, the British people, to decide what we want from our monarchy for the future. Whether we might not welcome a king who cares about the plight of our farmers - even if they don't agree that a badger cull is the best way to combat bovine TB. Whether the very impassive, 'hands off', mode of sovereignty employed by Queen Elizabeth is really the only way. But the memos risked making Charles look like a tetchy outsider still, rather than the king he may shortly be.

But whatever else the Prince's speech in Ireland may have been, it was also a riposte to those who ever said he should keep quiet; that he should not speak his views, or feelings, clearly. On Wednesday he said directly that 'we all have regrets' - one acknowledgement among many of the pain felt on the Irish side, of the fact that the loss of British lives was not the only side of the story.

When, on August 27 1979, the IRA blew up the boat from which Lord Mountbatten was fishing, the news caught the Royal Family on their annual holiday. 'Life will never be the same now that he has gone', Charles wrote then in his diary. Mountbatten had been 'the grandfather I never had', he said this week, before going to view the site of the explosion at Mullaghmore.

'At the time I could not imagine how we would come to terms with such a deep loss . . . it seemed as if the foundations of all we held dear in life were being torn apart.' Now, however, it has helped him to understand 'in a profound way' the 'agonies' borne by so many others 'of whatever faith, denomination, or political tradition.'

Acknowledging that Ireland's history 'contains much pain and resentment', he expressed the belief that England and Ireland were now, nonetheless 'no longer victims of our difficult history with each other'. His words may mean the more in that Prince Charles is also, besides his other titles, Colonel-in-Chief of the Parachute Regiment, the regiment whose deployment in Northern Ireland was the source of so much controversy. But it was not as a man in uniform that he spoke on Wednesday.

Instead he said that he was speaking as 'a grandfather'. Point is, it sounded as if he was speaking as a king to be. And - whether or not that's always been the case in the past - he was doing it very plausibly. This was a speech that deserves being remembered for a number of reasons - and Charles's advisors must hope it will be.