Charles and Camilla thank N. Irish people for their work – from nurses to domestic abuse workers & farmers

Last Wednesday, The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall headed to Northern Ireland for a day of engagements.

The facemasks worn by Prince Charles and Camilla during their visit were made by seamstresses who have been supported through the Turquoise Mountain Textiles programme, which was set up by The Prince of Wales in 2006, to protect heritage at risk and to provide training and jobs around the world.

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The masks are crafted by artisans in Myanmar using handwoven heritage textiles to turn leftover stock fabrics into unique and colourful face coverings. For every mask sold, the organisation is donating one to vulnerable communities in Yangon.

Charles and Camilla began the day at the Ulster Museum in Belfast to view the Florence Nightingale exhibition celebrating the 200th year anniversary since her birth. The exhibition commended the contribution of nurses since the First World War, up to present day battling the current Covid-19 outbreak.

The royal couple were particularly interested to hear from museum staff and volunteers about their work in getting the museum up and running, after it was closed for four and a half months during lockdown. The staff have been looking to create opportunities for innovation, such as virtual workshops, through their education teams which has enabled the museum to reach out to community groups.

Ulster Museum was the first National Museums Northern Ireland site to reopen to the public on 30th July 2020; numbers remain at approximately 25% of the usual footfall.

At the engagement, The Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall met nurses and midwives from Belfast Health and Social Care Trust, who transitioned from Queen’s University Belfast and the Open University into clinical roles to support and respond to Covid-19 pressures.

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Fiona Pierce, who will qualify as a midwife at the Royal Victoria Hospital, said it had felt nice to be thanked for their contribution. “It’s been a different end to the course than what we envisioned but we all met it with great enthusiasm and so excited to be recognised as being able to support the workforce,” she said.

Bronach Best, who works in mental health, said everyone had pulled together as a community of staff in the effort. “I think the public have been great, there was one occasion when I was going shopping in my uniform, and met a mum with her son who was wearing a Spiderman costume, and she said, ‘look there is a real life hero there’,” she said.

“It’s nice to be appreciated.”

The Prince and Duchess met a group of Belfast City Council staff and met Belfast Lord Mayor Frank McCoubrey outside the neighbouring Tropical Ravine building in the Botanic Gardens. The gardens were kept open by the team to ensure the local residents had outdoor spaces to use throughout lockdown.

In a step reminiscent of The Queen’s visit to the Game of Thrones set in 2015, the visitors were shown a replica of the Iron Throne from the fantasy series.

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The Duchess of Cornwall then paid a visit to the Belfast and Lisburn Women’s Aid. Women’s Aid provides confidential support, information and emergency accommodation for women and children affected by domestic and sexual violence.

The first Women’s Aid refuge in Northern Ireland was opened in Belfast in 1975; the Belfast group has grown over the years to become the largest group in the country. They provide 106 emergency beds across their three refuges and operate a series of outreach projects providing practical and emotional support. For the past seven years they’ve also provided support to female victims of human trafficking.

The Duchess of Cornwall has spent a lot of time over the years supporting charities that offer help to women who have been raped or suffering from domestic abuse.

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Camilla met staff, supporters and service users of Women’s Aid, and heard about the challenges they have faced during the Covid-19 outbreak. It has been reported that there has been an increase in domestic violence during the pandemic, and the staff were keen to show The Duchess of Cornwall how they have offered a safe place for people to reach out and get support in the past 6 months.

The Duchess heard victims of domestic abuse talk about their experiences, including a woman whose four children had been murdered by her abusive former husband. Camilla looked upset as she listened to the anonymous woman, who was trafficked to Northern Ireland via Germany from her home country of Somalia, tearfully recall how four of her six children – all boys – were stabbed to death by her former partner, who also tried to kill her. The man has never been brought to justice and after her other two children, a twin boy and girl, were taken away from her by their paternal grandfather, the woman – who was married at just 16 for the first time – left Somalia and has never seen them again.

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She wept as she thanked Camilla for coming to hear her story, telling her: “Thank you, thank you for coming to listen. I am very very happy to see you today.”

Camilla smiled and said: “No thank you for telling us,” and made a point of going up to her afterwards and telling her: “You are so very, very brave.”

The Duchess admitted that despite her extensive work in the arena she was shocked at some of the statistics she had heard. Some 32,000 incidents of domestic violence were reported across Northern Ireland last year, the highest number of incidents since records began 15 years ago. It is now on par with Romania as having the highest incidence of domestic abuse in Europe per head of population.

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The CEO of the Belfast group, Kelly Andrews, explained to the duchess that Northern Ireland was some way behind the UK in terms of legislation protecting women over stalking and issues such as coercive control but were catching up.

She said that much of the region’s problems were due to the familial nature of society and the fact that men had traditionally very much been the head of the household. ‘Married women felt they had made their bed and had to lie in it,’ she said.

The Irish royal residence: Hillsborough Castle

On a positive note, the Duchess was told that more women were also reporting incidents. Discussing the issue to how incidents of domestic violence had seen a marked increase since lockdown, the Duchess remarked: “Victims are more exposed and it seems the problem is escalating which is endlessly worrying,” she said. “There is no way out of the situation, or so they think, they feel trapped. They don’t trust anybody.”

Prince Charles headed to the Henderson Foodservice in Country Antrim. The family-owned business, Henderson Group, has been distributing food and grocery-related products to the convenience retail sector across Northern Ireland for 123 years, employing more than 4,000 people.

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The Henderson Group diversified during the pandemic, introducing home delivery services within around 250 stores. Regional stores have supported their own communities, for instance delivering hampers to nurses isolating away from their families. The Group recently launched a community grant scheme, giving £20,000 to charities providing a variety of complex and critical services to users throughout Northern Ireland, impacted by the health crisis.

Charles spent the afternoon laughing and joking with staff while he thanked them for their efforts during the health crisis and heard of the unprecedented demand they faced in recent months.

The Henderson Group has diversified to introduce home delivery services from 250 stores during the crisis. Stores have also supported their own communities by delivering hampers to nurses and others isolating away from their families.

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The Prince told them: “I’ve been hearing a lot about all the work you’ve put into helping to maintain everything despite the difficulties and the challenges I know you’ve all been facing with this particular pandemic.

“I can only congratulate all of you, for what it’s worth, for the amount of effort you’ve put into this and clearly the extraordinary amount of difference you’ve managed to make to so many people’s lives, particularly in delivering food parcels and all the trouble that’s taken in ensuring that everybody knows which customer is which and what needs are required,” Charles commented.

“And despite, I suspect, at the beginning of all of this having to deal with a huge number of people trying to hoard everything, I hope that had calmed down now and you’re all managing all right.”

He added: “But if I may just say, thank you for all the extra effort you’ve put in and I hope I haven’t caused mammoth disruption to the normal smooth working of this incredible operation.

“But well done all of you. Thank you.”

To round off the day, the future King and Queen headed to the official royal residence, Hillsborough Castle.

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Charles received Arlene Foster, First Minister of Northern Ireland, and Lord Dodds of Duncairn, amongst other senior political figures from the Northern Irish Assembly.

Camilla, meanwhile, met with her patronage, Barnardos, to learn more about how they have been continuing to provide support to children throughout the pandemic.

The Duchess of Cornwall meets representatives from Barnardos at Hillsborough Castle (@ClarenceHouse)

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