By David Young and Grainne Ni Aodha, PA
It was more than a simple gesture; it was a statement of intent.
When Britain’s King Charles turned to leave St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast, he crossed the aisle and made a beeline to 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.
The example set by the late Queen Elizabeth and Mr Higgins’ predecessor Mary McAleese, during visits to their respective countries, is clearly one they are keen to follow.
If protecting Anglo-Irish relations amid the ongoing turbulence of Brexit is a priority for them both, their friendly encounter at the close of Tuesday’s ecumenical service in Belfast offered ample evidence of it.
Only a few paces away stood British prime minister Liz Truss and Taoiseach Micheál Martin, two leaders who will have pivotal roles if the thorny impasse over the Northern Ireland Protocol is to be settled.
The pair had earlier spoken intently as they waited for the service in the cavernous Anglican cathedral to begin.
Behind them Sinn Féin’s vice president Michelle O’Neill sat beside DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson, two other politicians at opposing sides of the protocol dispute.
Nearby were Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and the new Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris.
It was almost as if the seat planner was keen to get some conversations going.
The watching elected representatives were certainly left in no doubt that the President and king are intent on strengthening the Irish-British bond, irrespective of recent political strains.
Earlier, Charles and Camilla were met with cheers as they arrived at the cathedral for the service in memory of the late queen.
Dozens of students, cadets, scouts in their uniforms, as well as charity workers, were among those who gathered opposite the cathedral and waited in the hot sun to catch sight of the new monarch.
As the new British 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 British 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 Mr Donaldson 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.
Following the service, the couple emerged into the blinding sunshine and greeted the well-wishers that had waited outside, shaking hands and exchanging a few words with people who expressed their condolences to the new king.
For Karen McShane, a trustee of the local LGBT charity the Rainbow Project, it was “a very important day for Belfast”, and the unity shown was a signal of hope for the future.
“The atmosphere here today was very relaxed,” she said.
“A lot of people think of Belfast as being quite tense and quite difficult. But everybody is here today with the same agenda. We all wanted to see something positive as a result of the king’s visit today.
“And I for one, from a nationalist community, am very glad to have been invited along to be able to support that message.
“There was a couple of hundred people here invited in front of St Anne’s Cathedral to participate in proceedings today.
“I’m delighted to see the next generation of young people coming through, a lot of school children here, some studying history, some studying politics, who were very keen to see the new king.
“They were very keen to pick up on the symbolism of what was involved today.”
She said it signified a positive direction for Northern Ireland.
“For too long we have been two different societies, yet we all occupy this one island, and this one area of Northern Ireland,” she said.
“We have to be able to live together.
“Hopefully today is the symbolism of King Charles now moving forward to try and unite those two different sides of the community.”