Political row as Queen prepares for Maundy ceremony

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The Queen today honoured a centuries-old tradition of distributing Maundy money as a row continued over the political conditions of a visit by her to the Irish Republic.

As the Queen travelled to the ecclesiastical capital of Armagh, in Northern Ireland, to take part in the traditional pre-Easter ceremony, unionists demanded an apology from the Irish President, for linking a visit by the Queen to the Irish Republic, to the transfer of policing and justice powers to the Stormont power-sharing executive.

After meeting the Queen in Belfast yesterday, Mrs Mary McAleese said: "I think the day (of the first visit by a Monarch) is significantly closer."

"We know that it is dependent on the completion of devolution, which hopefully will not be too far away. That means the return of policing and criminal justice responsibility to the Executive in Northern Ireland.

"We had hoped that would be May. Now we are not entirely sure what the timescale is. We hope it will keep closely to the timetable.

"When that is done, when devolution is completed, I think then anything is possible."

But her comments were described as deeply damaging by Democratic Unionist MP Gregory Campbell whose party is resisting the transfer of policing and justice powers to the Stormont Executive by the British Government's deadline in May.

"Up until now no-one to my knowledge has linked a possible visit by Her Majesty to the Irish Republic to the devolution of policing and justice," the East Londonderry MP said.

"It is highly inappropriate for her to play politics with the Queen's visit. She has been prone to gaffes in the past. We have had previous foot-in-mouth episodes.

"However this has gone down very badly and all this does is make unionists in favour of transferring powers respond that they will not be bounced into doing what she and Sinn Fein are demanding. She really ought to clarify her position."

Today's Maundy Thursday ceremony was taking place in Armagh's Anglican Cathedral, St Patrick's.

The service at the Church of Ireland Cathedral will be cross-community, and joining Archbishop Alan Harper will be Catholic Primate Cardinal Sean Brady and other church leaders.

With dissident republicans remaining a threat, security was tight in the city.

The Queen will distribute Maundy money as a symbol of the giving of alms and Christ's washing of the apostles' feet on Holy Thursday.

This is the first time the Queen has carried out the ceremony outside England and Wales.

A total of 164 pensioners - 82 men and 82 women, reflecting the Queen's age of 82 - will receive £5.50 in a red purse and 82 pence in a white purse.

The specially-minted money is highly sought after by collectors, and recipients are chosen after consultation with the local community.