‘I don’t mean to sound cold, but it means nothing to me’: Queen’s funeral goes unnoticed at republican club

Republican ex-prisoner concedes queen’s `vitally important’ handshake with late Martin McGuinness in 2012 was `a huge signal to the unionist community’

Republican ex-prisoner Michael Culbert is asking American visitors how they like their tea before pulling up a chair beside a former British soldier in a west Belfast club.

It is an hour before Queen Elizabeth’s state funeral in London but in an upstairs function room of The Felons on the Falls Road there is only a brief nod to the historic event.

Culbert, director of Coiste na nlarchimí – a group set up in 1998 to provide support to ex-prisoners and their families – introduces himself to the assembled tourists and explains that a co-panellist from the loyalist community cannot join them as he is in “grave mourning”.

“I’m an Irish republican. I don’t do royalty”, he says.


For the next 90 minutes, Culbert and ex-soldier “Lee” – who doesn’t wish to give his surname – sit comfortably side by side and share their personal histories as part of a long-running reconciliation project they have worked on.

“People know ‘what’ happened but they don’t know the ‘why’,” adds Culbert.

“We’re two human beings who were direct enemies for many years. There is nothing personal involved in conflict. If you were to go back 20 years he and I wouldn’t be talking. He wouldn’t be in this building except to search it.”

On a ledge directly above the pair are wooden harps, Celtic crosses and lamps – all crafted by former prisoners while in jail.

A former Orange hall first leased to Reverend Henry Price in 1847, the building has been home to the Irish Republican Felons Association since 1974.

Full membership has only ever been open to former republican prisoners. Nelson Mandela is an honorary member and his handwritten note hangs in the club’s entrance hall facing a picture of the 1916 Proclamation and its signatories.

Culbert, who worked as a “taxman” for the Inland Revenue in the late 1960s before switching profession to become a social worker, is a Felons member.

He joined the IRA in the early 1970s and served 16 years of a life sentence before his release in 1993.

The 73-year-old grandfather is passionate about the peace process and believes “our conflict won’t be repeated”.

Asked about the impact of the late queen on peace-building in the North, he singles out her “vitally important” handshake with the late Martin McGuinness in 2012.

“That was a huge signal to the unionist community,” he says.

“If the queen of Britain can shake hands with Martin McGuinness, that was hands across the divide as far as I was concerned. It was a major, major moment for both parties.”

As Sinn Féin first minister-designate Michelle O’Neill and party colleague Alex Maskey – also a Felons member and speaker of the North’s Assembly – attended the monarch’s funeral on Monday, Culbert admits her passing has not personally affected him.

“I don’t mean to sound cold, but it means absolutely nothing to me. It hasn’t been the topic of conversation where I’ve been in west Belfast.”

Referring to the speech of condolence made by Maskey to the incoming King Charles at Hillsborough Castle last week, Culbert nods and praises its “respectful tone”.

“I thought it was a major move for Alex and the party. Obviously, Alex is not just the Sinn Féin speaker up in Stormont. He’s a speaker for the North of Ireland and he has to include the views of the Unionist community.”

As the Coiste director helps Lee clear away the tea cups and saucers, the former British solider is initially reluctant to speak.

Having served two tours in the North, he left the Army in the 1990s and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Addressing the tourists earlier, the British midlands man spoke of how his early military training left him “pumped with a very righteous form of patriotism”.

Stressing that he is “not a monarchist”, he says he also understands why army veterans feel a “kinship” towards the queen.

“When you join the army you swear an oath of allegiance to the queen – it’s what I had to do to get a job.

“Most people who join up from England do so because of economic circumstances [like me] or family tradition or for adventure, it’s a way of escaping a mundane life.

“At some point during your training that ‘righteous patriotism’ comes through – and it suddenly becomes the reason you joined the army.

“I would argue that most people don’t join the army to fight for your queen and country; they come to believe that.

“But I can understand why society at large wants to mourn, she has been monarch for 70 years. It’s all they’ve ever known as a sovereign head of government.”

The lunchtime trade is beginning to trickle into the club’s downstairs restaurant, decorated with images from the United Irishmen to the ten Republican prisoners who died in the 1981 hunger strikes.

Felons committee chair, John Bradley, shares a potted history of the association and presents me with a list of the building’s leaseholders going back to Reverend Price.

The former prisoner mentions the age of their members and how its membership criteria may have to change in a post-conflict society:

“We took over from the older generation during the 1980s. But most of us now are in our 60s and we’ve got to think about the future of the association. We are in the process of creating a new tier of membership to allow people to become full time members and have voting rights.”

Bradley says that while “people from across the community” and “all religions” visit the club, the queen’s passing is “irrelevant” to him.

“I have family living in England, and I understand it means something,” he adds.

“But for us as republicans at the Felons it has no consequence. As far we’re concerned, we’re sad to see a woman dying at the age of 96, she had a good long life and it’s sad for her family.”

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham is Northern Correspondent of The Irish Times