Before the first ceasefire in Northern Ireland it was impossible to organise a royal visit to any of the hospitals there because the security risk was so great. The Duchess of Kent, patron of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, would instead host receptions for hospital staff at Hillsborough Castle.

But three years ago, after the ceasefire, she was able to visit and lay the foundation stone of the new children's hospital. The visit was arranged months in advance, explains a hospital spokesperson.

'We worked with her private office in London and the government offices in Belfast. Initially, one person in the corporate affairs team began work on the programme but, as the day of the visit drew nearer, more staff were brought in. We were working flat out at the end.

'There was a great deal of liaison with the police and army. But if we thought the security hoops were difficult enough when the Duchess came, they were nothing compared with what happened when Hillary Clinton visited,' says the spokesperson. The US president's wife accompanied the prime minister's wife, Cherie Blair, on a visit to the hospital in the wake of the Omagh bombing last year. 'Mrs Clinton's security staff just took over,' says the spokesperson. 'As staff we will put up with quite a lot but we did find it intolerable that they were so rude to our patients.'

There were no such problems when the Duchess visited. The hospital was told to build extra time into the programme 'because she will talk to everyone'.

'She is always well-informed about local healthcare politics and genuinely interested in what people have to say,' the spokesperson adds. 'She is certainly not just a name on the bottom of our notepaper.

'All the staff, even those you would think of as being cool and together, were completely agog when she walked into the hospital. When she'd laid the foundation stone she walked around the hospital, sitting on the ends of patients' beds to chat.'

No areas of the hospital were off-limits and there was little cost, 'although the cleaners were up earlier than usual and scrubbing that little bit harder'.