Countess and Earl of Wessex wind up Juan Carlos whilst in Gibraltar
Earl and Countess of Wessex in Gibraltar: ‘thank you for coming, it means so much to us’
The Earl and Countess of Wessex were greeted with a sea of patriotism during their trip to Gibraltar. Fiona Govan spoke to those who treasured the opportunity to show their allegiance to the crown.
By Fiona Govan, Gibraltar
7:34PM BST 11 Jun 2012
“Here they come, here they come, its so exciting,” declared 93-year-old Victoria Pitalya leaping out of her wheelchair waving a Union Jack flag with a vigour that defied her age.
As the Earl and Countess of Wessex approached through a sea of people lining Gibraltar’s Main Street, she beamed at them and croaked: “Thank you for coming, it means so much to us.”
For the people of Gibraltar, a tiny territory sitting on the southern tip of Spain, the Royal visit by the Queen’s youngest son and his wife Sophie Rhys-Jones, was a treasured opportunity to show their allegiance to the crown.
“I was here when the Queen visited in 1954,” recalled Mrs Pitalya in a shady spot in front of Marks and Spencers. “That was a great day too. Nothing much has changed here really, except back then I was a bit more sprightly.”
Schoolchildren had the day off to come out to wave flags and cheer (DM PARODY)
Indeed, the centuries-old territorial dispute over the sovereignty of Gibraltar has been stirred once again.
When the Queen visited in May during the second year of her reign it caused such outrage on the Spanish side that Gen Francisco Franco blockaded the border isolating the territory for the next 18 years in punishment.
Such a drastic measure has been avoided on this latest of royal visits but diplomatic tensions have deepened in the run up to the Royal tour, part of the official celebrations to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee year.
Last month Spain’s Queen Sofia was forced by her nation’s government to turn down an invitation to a celebratory lunch hosted by the Queen at Windsor Palace for sovereign monarchs across the globe in protest over the Earl’s visit to Gibraltar.
Spain’s foreign ministry also issued a formal complaint in May to Giles Paxman, Britain’s ambassador to Madrid, in which the government of Mariano Rajoy expressed “upset and concern” over the proposed visit.
Last Friday, Jose Garcia-Margallo, Spain’s foreign minister reiterated that sentiment stating that it was a “most inopportune moment” for Britain to send its Royals to the Rock.
In recent weeks, an ongoing dispute over fishing rights in the waters surrounding the territory has led to stand-offs between Spanish Civil Guard vessels accompanying fishermen in the area and Gibraltar police patrols enforcing a ban.
Spain has retaliated by slowing traffic crossing the border causing tail-backs and delays of up to three hours.
“It’s a regular bullying tactic used by the Spanish to punish us whenever they feel like it,” said Gerry Sol Matthews, 47 as she stood in the crowds with her mother and daughter.
The developments mark a change in diplomatic relations over Gibraltar since the Popular Party took power in December and abandoned a tripartite agreement to strengthen working relations.
Gibraltar was ceded to Britain under the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 but Spain still claims sovereignty.
Britain and Spain once looked at sharing sovereignty of the Rock, home to 28,000 people, on its 2.6 square miles. But in 2002, 99 per cent of them voted against the move, demanding to remain part of Britain.
And as the Duke and Countess of Wessex toured the peninsula there was no doubt over where the loyalties of Gibraltarians lie.
The Countess of Wessex greets the crowd (DM PARODY)
“Gibraltar values its Britishness above all else,” Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo, who came to office for the Socialist Liberal Party in December, told the Daily Telegraph. “And in Her Majesty’s Jubilee Year we are delighted to welcome the Earl and Countess of Wessex as her representatives to demonstrate our loyalty and affection for the British crown and as guarantors of our constitution and our Britishness.”
The people of Gibraltar, he said, would not allow complaints from Spain to dampen their spirits.
“Complaints by the Spanish are so often heard that they really are of no relevance or consequence to the people of Gibraltar.”
“They are the institutional rumblings of the diplomatic system and while they serve to whip things up I don’t think that ordinary people of Spain are the least bit concerned with what is happening here. They are more worried about the realities of Spain.”
Back on Main Street, beneath row upon row of red, white and blue bunting fluttering in the breeze, a little girl in a princess outfit couldn’t contain her excitement as the Royal party approached. “I’m about to see a real live British Prince,” Gabriella, aged 4, gasped.
Although admittedly the encounter left her a little underwhelmed. “Was that him?” she asked her mother after Prince Edward swept past. “He wasn’t even wearing a crown.”