Stormont: The people behind a political miracle

They said it would never work. But the NorthernIreland Assembly has confounded its critics, bringing harmony and stability to the UK's most troubled region. And for those employed behind the scenes, it's a real labour of love. David McKittrick meets the men and women building a brighter future for their children
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Indy Politics

Dermot McGreevy, the events organiser at the Northern Ireland Assembly, clearly had a spring to his step as he made his way along its imposing marble corridors. His stride was so jaunty that it was noticed by Northern Ireland's First Minister, Dr Ian Paisley, who paused and asked him: "What are you so happy about, big man?"

He had just helped to organise one of the most remarkable events ever witnessed in Belfast the moment when Dr Paisley had assumed political office alongside his old sworn enemy, Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness.

McGreevy had masterminded some of the thousands of details involved in bringing this extraordinary newadministration into being: it had been launched with music and formalities and speeches, at which Dr Paisley memorably spoke of "a time when hate will no longer rule".

Devolution had "gone live", as they said, carrying with it the hopes of millions. McGreevy's face lights up as he recalls the conversation in the corridor "I must have had a smile from ear to ear."

"And I said, 'Well, Dr Paisley, you've had a big say in that smile'. It was a great day, a remarkable day, a very heady day."

That took place in May, at Stormont, the expansive east-Belfast building that is the seat of devolution. The new administration has now been in place for nearly eight months, confounding pessimists who predicted that it would fall apart within weeks.

McGreevy is one of hundreds of staff who daily work behind the scenes to ensure that the only agreed assembly in Belfast's history stays on track. The public is keen to have a look inside: McGreevy and his staff cater for two or three visiting groups every day, despite serious security considerations.

People come to lobby, for concerts and recitals, to hold celebrations, political and non-political, to view the elegant marble and stately chandeliers. "The view is that this is the people's building," McGreevy explains.

In a move that underlines this attitude, The Independent was recently given unprecedented access to Stormont, and permission to interview the wide range of staff behind what can rightly be called a political miracle. Anne-Marie Fleming, for example, has swopped teaching for a post as a Stormont's educationofficer, and now shows around groups of pupils, informing them of its history and architecture, and introducing them to politicians.

"To be fair to the politicians," she remarked, "they are quite good at communicating with young people, showing that they have a sense of humour. Young people ask them questions like, 'How much do you earn?', and, 'Do you think you deserve such a high salary?'. And I've been impressed by the politicians' high level of honesty they'll answer any question, the more controversial the better. The feedback from the visitors is that it has been a highly worthwhile experience."

The Speaker at Stormont, William Hay, of Dr Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, is adamant that whatever security problems exist this is, after all, Belfast the premises should be as open to the public as possible. "We have got to be sure that the people can relate to what's happening here," he stressed. "We have a lot of outreach work to do. There's a lot of goodwill out there, but we have to sustain it, to grow it, and the way to do that is to make the building as much of an open door as possible."

Speaker Hay's description of a "very lively" atmosphere was borne out by members of staff such as Mairead Mageean, the head of information, who enthused about "a really good atmosphere, a good buzz about the place". She added: "When I told family and friends that I was coming to work at Stormont, some of them said, 'What do you want to go up there for?'.

"And they mentioned certain politicians," she said, with a wry smile. "But what has surprised me is the members' ability to interact. They do work together much more than I had anticipated."

Sharon McCabe, a reporter for Hansard in Stormont, admitted however that when she went to work there, some family and friends "probably thought I was mad". But she had since found "a very positive atmosphere with a sense of permanence about it, of good spirit and camaraderie".

Her colleague, Hansard assistant editor and former journalist Neal Flanagan, said that it had been "a joy" to be there in the first months of the new government. He was surprised at "just how well former political adversaries got down to the work without any real animosity".

The irony is that animosity has been one of Stormont's defining characteristics right up to this political moment. Its history was first one of political sterility and later of discord and strife: conflict has been its trademark.

Opened in the 1930s, it originally housed a brand of Unionist and Protestant rule that excluded Catholics and nationalists from government. Over all the decades, only one bill sponsored by nationalists ever passed it concerned the welfare of wild birds, and that was in the 1930s.

The Unionist Party automatically won every election, leaving nationalist members to make impotent speeches and stage boycotts and walkouts. For decades, attitudes were as unyielding as the Mourne Mountains granite that provides Stormont's foundations.

The building's massive aspect, almost 100ft high, was specifically designed to project stability and continuity. It certainly transmitted that message for decades, but by the 1970s, violence and political turmoil caused the edifice to collapse.

The decades since then saw intermittent attempts to set up a new administration, but until last year, none was successful and they were quickly toppled by acrimonious crises and commotions. This explains why the families and friends of some of today's staff view it as a risky place to be employed. It seemed forever fated to be disrupted by convulsions, a building that was physically imposing but politically precarious.

Stormont's long, sorry record as the scene of Belfast's recurrent political failures helps to explain why the political breakthrough, when it came last year, caused such astonishment. Few were ready for the once unthinkable deal that produced what is, in essence, a Paisley-Sinn Fein coalition.

The first inkling of the historic advance came in March, when intense late-night negotiations saw senior officials such as Sheila McClelland moving tables around at 2.30am in readiness for a hastily arranged announcement. McClelland was one of the few who were in on the moves. "It all seemed very dark," she recalled, "but the darkest hour was before the dawn. When Dr Paisley and Gerry Adams sat down together, we realised that things were on the turn."

The dramatic and unprecedented television images showed the loyalist and republican leaders sitting side by side, earnestly pledging to put centuries of "discord, conflict, hurt and tragedy" behind them. To ensure that they caused no offence, the words they delivered were as exquisitely crafted as Stormont's Italianate marble halls, as carefully fashioned as its intricate paintwork, as symmetrical as its Greek classical lines.

It was an electrifying development. "It was the best day of my professional life," enthused Norah-Ann Barron of Pi Communications, the company that runs the Assembly broadcasting unit. "It was all go all under embargo and so secretive, all very nerve-wracking.

"There was no rehearsal, no second chance. I was aware that there was just one opportunity to get it right, and that that small piece of film would be talked about for ever more.

"The cameraman happened to be my husband, so it was lovely for us as a married couple, brilliant to be in that room at that historic moment."

Since that day, there have been many political tussles in Stormont. How should the administration's budget be allocated? How exactly should collective responsibility be exercised? What to do with the now-defunct Maze prison?

The administration is dominated by the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein, who provide the First Minister and his deputy, as well as heading seven of the 10 departments. The old unyielding majority rule is just a distant memory: compromise is now the order of the day.

Previous administrations proved highly fissionable in the past seven years, four separate suspensions meant that the Assembly spent more time in mothballs than actually functioning but the big parties are determined to keep the new system going.

The prevailing philosophy is thus that disagreements are natural and to be expected, but that they will on no account be allowed to wreck this Assembly. Paisley and McGuinness aides work assiduously together to ensure that disputes are contained within acceptable limits.

The extraordinarily affable personal relations between Dr Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness have helped to remove much of the rancour from everyday politics, as a visit to the busy basement canteen illustrates. The 108 Assembly members share dining facilities, and although the DUP and Sinn Fein members tend not to share tables, the atmosphere in the canteen is nonetheless informal and relaxed. Staff, journalists and politicians including Dr Paisley and Martin McGuinness are daily to be found, tray in hand, queueing at the self-service counter for their lunchtime soup and sandwiches. It wasn't so long ago that some of these people flatly refused even to share a television studio.

Today, they shuffle along civilly, rubbing shoulders as they ponder whether to have the lasagne or the chicken curry. At breakfast, ancient enemies who once refused to share power are now sharing porridge.

"There is a formal members' dining room upstairs," said Colin Prentice, whose company Eurest manages the catering . "But they tend to be a bit more on show there. In the canteen downstairs, they can take their jackets off and throw them over a chair, and really relax and enjoy their lunch." Prentice also runs services such as cleaning, portering and hospitality. Members can be demanding, he indicated discreetly. "The clients demand a very high level of service," he smiled.

For most services, the buck stops with Sheila McClelland, who, as the Keeper of the House, the Stormont equivalent of Westminster's Black Rod, has overall responsibility for the fabric of the building and its facilities. "It takes a certain set of skills to work in a political environment," according to her. "With the members, you sometimes use joviality and sometimes seriousness, depending on how articulate or how focused or how irate the member is about a particular issue.

"They can come to you at times just to give a bit of advice; at other times they can come in and say: fix it now. We serve everybody impartially. It's a political environment, so life here is very dependent on what political momentum there is. The political outlook looks much more positive now."

Civil Servants are supposed to maintain strict political neutrality, and there have been no accusations that Stormont's staff favour one party or grouping rather than another. On one level, there is a culture of impartiality.

Yet conversations with Stormont staff also unmistakeably reveal that many of them have an additional level of commitment to the survival of this fledgling institution. There is a palpable hope that this Assembly will survive where its predecessors vanished into political oblivion.

Dermot McGreevy reflected this when he said: "Our politicians did find a way through. And that has restored to me the sense that there's a new hope, a new sense of something worth working for here. I think this pervades other units of staff throughout the organisation.

"We will roll up our sleeves and we will do whatever is needed, because there's a bigger picture happening here on the political front. I know that staff here feel that there is something that's bigger and better, that reaches beyond the walls of this building."

The big, white, imperious building has sat on its east-Belfast hilltop for three-quarters of a century. Yet it has only been in the last seven months that it has come to represent something new, a sense not of disharmony but of common purpose.

The doorman who became a national hero

The most dramatic event in the Assembly's recent life was not a political setback or breakthrough but a violent incident which brought a flashback to the worst of the Troubles.

It began when Peter Lachanudis, one of the security guards at the revolving front door, heard a commotion and saw a gunman confronting his female colleague Susan Porter. He did not know it at the time, but the intruder was Michael Stone, a loyalist extremist who had been convicted of six murders. Shouting, "There's a bomb, there's a bomb, it's going to go off," Stone threw a fizzing package into the main hallway. "I heard a commotion, got to the door and there was a man with a gun pointing it at my head," Lachanudis recalled.

"That's all I knew at the time, I just reacted from that grabbed the gun and lifted his arm so it was pointing to the ceiling. I had him in an armlock for a few minutes till colleagues came and helped me manhandle him to the ground."

Major politicians were only a short distance away in the chamber, while there were schoolchildren in the hall. "It was the safety of everybody, especially the children, I was concerned about," said Lachanudis.

Although there was no way of knowing it at the time, Stone's gun was an imitation firearm and his bomb was a hoax. "I thought he was a suicide bomber," said Peter. "The device was only a matter of feet away, and I could see it fizzing. I was shouting down the hallway to warn people there's a bomb, get out, get out.

"He kept saying it was a bomb. I told him: 'Then we're all going to get blown up together.'" When Lachanudis realised he was grappling with a convicted mass-murderer, "it sent a shiver up my spine", he says.

Lachanudis is grateful both to his colleagues and to his wife and family for their support in helping him in the aftermath of what was a traumatic event. He subsequently received a bravery award for tackling Stone, who faces five charges of attempted murder in connection with the incident.