Thousands of cheering people welcomed the Special Olympics “Flame of Hope” to Northern Ireland today on its journey from Athens to the World Summer Games in Dublin.
There was a carnival atmosphere in the seaside town of Bangor when the flame finally arrived on the island of Ireland.
Since being lit in Athens on June 4, it has been carried more than 9,300 miles (15,000kms) by teams of police officers from around the world running in relays.
They have visited 17 major cities in 15 countries.
The Final Leg Team of 160 runners, 103 of them police officers, including five drawn from the Police service of Northern Ireland, and five from the gardaí, will carry the flame through 130 cities, towns and villages on both sides of the Irish border before it arrives in Dublin for the opening of the games on June 21.
The privilege of bringing the flame ashore from a Royal Navy vessel which had brought it across the Irish Sea from Scotland, fell to PSNI Sergeant Tim Craig.
He was flown from HMS Cottesmore, lying in Bangor Bay, hanging beneath a helicopter with the flame proudly held aloft.
When he touched down on the side of the harbour he presented the flame to his Chief Constable, Hugh Orde.
The Special Olympics World Games is the largest sporting event in the world this year, and is being held outside the United States for the first time.
More than 7,000 athletes with learning disabilities from 160 countries around the world are competing in the games which has moved to Europe to coincide with European Year of People with Disabilities.
The teams are being billeted in towns across Ireland with the largest, from the United States, staying in Belfast, and one of the smallest, from Iraq, preparing in Larne, Co Antrim.
The carnival atmosphere which epitomises the games was exemplified as the flame arrived in Bangor when a local policeman was swept up in the festivities.
As a singer belted out “One Moment in Time”, Inspector Lyster King grabbed one of the game’s female marshals and they danced happily among the crowd.
Welcoming the flame to Bangor, Denis O’Brien, chairman of the games organising committee, said: “Today is a significant day in the history of the island of Ireland.
“The Special Olympics Flame of Hope in the entrusted care of Garda Siochana, PSNI and the international law enforcement community, symbolises the courage and celebration of diversity that the Special Olympics movement represents.”
Speaking at the arrival ceremony, Mr Orde said: “Special Olympics is all about inclusion, it has been and continues to be a source of great inspiration to everyone involved, when we see what can be achieved by working together as local and international communities.
“We are very proud to play our part in this historic event for the entire island of Ireland.”
He was accompanied by the Garda Deputy Commissioner Peter Fitzgerald who expressed the delight and honour they both felt that their officers were part of the guardians and bearers of the Flame of Hope.
He added: “I am confident that the goodwill that has been generated by the Special Olympics, and Special Olympic athletes will live on long, long after the Special Olympics leave this island, and will light the way for all of us on this island.”
From Bangor the torch was carried by the runners through the neighbouring town of Newtownards, and on to Stormont where Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy welcomed the runners for a celebration and reception before they continued their journey around the country en route to Dublin.