By Ian Graham
BELFAST (Reuters Life!) - Northern Ireland took Kate Middleton to their hearts on Tuesday when Prince William flew in to show off his bride-to-be amid the tightest security.
Cheering crowds hundreds-strong greeted the young couple in Belfast and Hillsborough, Co Down during a day-long series of engagements carried out with armed police ever-present.
Attacks by nationalist splinter groups trying to end British control are at their highest level since a 1998 peace agreement largely ended three decades of conflict that cost more than 3,600 lives.
The area around their first port of call, Belfast City Hall, was ringed by police and police marksmen kept watch from surrounding rooftops.
Because of the security risk no advance information about the visit was released, but despite the secrecy several hundred gathered outside City Hall and cheered wildly when they were rewarded with a 10-minute walk-about during which both William and Kate enthusiastically threw themselves into shaking hands with almost all.
They tried their hand at pancake tossing -- both successfully -- when they stopped at a children's cancer charity Shrove Tuesday fund-raising event.
Well-wisher Gloria Lowry was ecstatic at being able to meet William and future wife Middleton.
"It was wonderful, I got to shake their hands and to talk to them separately. I wished them the best for the 29th of April (their wedding day) and their life afterwards. They both thanked me, it was really nice to be here to see them, they are really down to earth, very genuine and very warm."
Workers in offices surrounding the City Hall pressed up against windows craning to get a glimpse of William and Middleton, who was wearing a belted, mink-colored, double-breasted coat cut above the knee, with a frill at the base, black opaque tights and black high-heeled shoes.
William wore a navy suit.
After City Hall it was off around the corner to charity YouthAction where children put on a song and dance performance and the prince presented certificates to those who had completed an apprenticeship in youth work.
They met Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson, but Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness absented himself -- in line with the republican party's policy on Britain's royal family.
Another walk-about amid cheering crowds followed before they headed to Hillsborough Castle in Co Down for lunch with Northern Ireland Secretary of State Owen Paterson. It was followed by another successful negotiated walk-about before they headed for the final engagement of the day, a visit to Greenmount Agricultural College in Antrim.
The trip is the latest public appearance by the couple since their engagement was announced last year, following a launch of a new lifeboat in Wales last month and a visit to the Scottish university where they began their romance.
The couple's visit to Northern Ireland came days after it was announced Queen Elizabeth would make a historic visit to the Irish Republic, the first by a British monarch since the partition of Ireland in 1921.
(Editing by Paul Casciato)