With the ever changing political situation in Northern Ireland, it’s difficult to predict exactly what will await you on a visit to Stormont. At the very least you will learn a tremendous amount about Northern Ireland’s troubled past and will enjoy a guided tour to the Legislative Assembly and the Senate. If the Assembly is in session you can sit in one of the 126 seats in the Public Gallery to listen to a debate. Or you may be lucky, as we were, and arrive at an interesting moment in tortured political negotiations and have the chance to witness leading politicians speaking to the press about the latest crisis. This is Northern Ireland: anything is possible!
The mile long drive through an avenue of 305 lime trees up to the Parliament buildings is a delight in itself. It sweeps upwards towards the hill on which stands the impressive building designed by Arnold Thornely which stands in 235 acres of scenic parkland. It was officially opened in 1932 by the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII. The building, designed in the Classical Greek tradition, is of Portland Stone. The wide steps climb upwards to the porticoed entrance of 6 pillars and inside there are 6 floors representing the 6 counties of Northern Ireland.
During WWII the building, gleaming wonderfully white, had to be camouflaged with a combination of bitumen and cow manure to prevent its recognition by any Luftwaffe overhead. The RAF used the Senate Chamber to conduct operations. At the end of the war the RAF moved out swiftly and successfully - but it took 7 and a half years to scrape off the camouflage and the building has never recovered its initial glorious colour.
Once in the interior there is no doubt that the Great Hall is designed to impress citizens, overseas delegations and visitors of all descriptions.
The ceiling is magnificent, patterned in geometric designs in the blue, red and gold colours of King George V, their exact pattern mirrored in the marble floor tiles below. Due to a secret waxing process by Heaton, Tab and Co the colours remain as bright as when they were originally painted in 1932 and it does not need cleaning.
The pillars, floor and staircase are made of cream, gold and walnut Italian travertine marble.
Chandeliers hang from the ceiling: the central one, made of cast iron and gilded in 24 carat gold, was originally a gift from Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany to his uncle Edward VII. The Grand Staircase has bronze balustrades and, in its centre, there is a life size statue of Lord Craigavon, the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland 1921 - 1940.
News conferences regularly take place in the Great Hall and, sure enough, we were treated to the arrival down the imposing staircase of Michelle O’Neill, currently leader of Sinn Fein, the largest party elected by the country in May 2022. She stood with Connor Murphy, Minister for Finance, to make a statement and take questions about the discussions currently ongoing with the visiting American delegation who were attempting to get the Assembly functioning again after the current deadlock over the NI protocol.
The tour comprises the Legislative Assembly Chamber and the Senate. The Chamber has a horseshoe shape designed to encourage cooperative rather than adversarial politics. 108 Members of the Legislative Assembly sit here. The wall panelling is English walnut, the seating and carpets are flax blue. The Senate Chamber is modelled on the House of Lords in Westminster with red leather seating and dispatch boxes. Our guide took us to sit in the Chamber and made a valiant attempt at unravelling the tortuous nature of Northern Ireland politics and its existing constitution and voting arrangements for us.
She gave us a brief history of the building and its success until the beginning of the Troubles in 1969. By 1972 Northern Ireland was reeling from the violence that was by now endemic on the streets of both Belfast and Londonderry. The devolved government was struggling to find solutions so in 1973 the Province came under direct rule from Westminster. The Sunningdale Agreement seemed to offer hope of some sort of power sharing between the parties, but the workers’ strike made any advances impossible and The Troubles continued with horrendous bloodshed for both sides of the political divide.
In 1998 the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement was successfully negotiated. All 32 counties of Ireland could vote; 94% voted in favour of its implementation. However, the Democratic Unionist Party have never signed it. By 2007 the positions of First Minister and Deputy First Minister were held by Ian Paisley of the DUP and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein respectively. Our guide said that she had never believed that they could work in harmony until she saw them together in the Assembly, watched their fake smiles become real ones and witnessed a genuine respect and friendship developing. There seemed then to be concrete hope that the politicians could finally co-operate and work for the common good.
However, we were somewhat dismayed to hear that three recent discussions had centred round the colour of the seats in the Assembly. There was debate about whether the existing blue – chosen initially to represent the flax that created Northern Ireland’s successful linen industry - was royal blue, St Patrick’s blue or Presbyterian blue and, if it was any of those blues, did it need to be changed? Really??
In 2022 there is still much to be decided before Northern Ireland can feel its future is secure. The vote of a narrow majority of the British electorate for Brexit has created difficulties yet to be resolved. Unionist parties declare that the subsequent Protocol for Northern Ireland disadvantages them as citizens of the UK.
People here remain divided on the issue of a united or a partitioned Ireland. In the meantime the younger generation have other priorities in life than squabbling about constitutional issues, borders, protocols and power sharing. They want to see action on issues such as climate change, education and health. The Legislative Assembly at Stormont has to come together and reflect these wishes whatever their disagreements but, at the time of writing, this looks to be some way away.
It is an excellent tour, informative and interesting. You come away still confused by the tangles and intricacies of politics here but also have a deeper understanding of the views expressed by the taxi drivers, the bar staff and ordinary people in the street that the politicians should have their heads knocked together and “just get on with it”. You may need a stroll round the magnificent gardens and grounds of the Stormont Estate to clear your head, but the entire visit is very stimulating and definitely to be recommended.
Free public tours are available at 11am and 2pm daily, bookable on the website. The ground floor of the building is open to the public from Monday to Friday.
How to get there
Parliament Buildings, Stormont Estate, Belfast. There is a security check for visitors.
The main car park to the right of the buildings is free of charge.
Several buses pass the end of the drive to the City Centre. The best one is the Glider, running every 10 minutes. It’s a very pleasant walk up the drive.
Refreshments are available at the Speaker’s Corner Coffee Shop or meals can be booked in advance in the Members’ Dining Room.