REAR WINDOW : STORMONT : A Unionist `proof of permanence' that outlived its usefulness

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The Independent Online
THE CITY of Belfast has two public buildings of genuine grandeur. In the very centre, at the hub of the street system, stands the City Hall, a gleaming wedding cake of a monument to industrial and commercial greatness in the 19th century. It is the seat of the city council. Five mi les to the west, in splendid grounds now surrounded by comfortable suburbs, stands Stormont, a monument to something rather different.

A massive rectangle of Portland stone 120 yards across, it sits high on the hillside at the end of an approach road worthy of Versailles. For 40 years it was the home of the Parliament of Northern Ireland, and its very name became the accepted shorthand for Protestant-Unionist political domination in the province.

So strong is this symbolism that, when fire damaged the west wing last week, gutting the old House of Commons debating chamber, Ian Paisley among others immediately assumed it must be arson. The fire is still being investigated, but faulty wiring is thought to be the most likely cause.

Stormont was built to be a symbol. When it opened in 1932 it was described by one Unionist minister, Hugh Pollock, as "the outward and visible proof of the permanence of our institutions; that for all time we are bound indissolubly to the British crown".

The Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, came to open it, although his attitude on the day left something to be desired. According to a Unionist writer of the time, St John Ervine, the prince "came scowling to Belfast", having refused at first to make thevisit and been ordered to it by his father, George V. His reluctance was ascribed to the work of a courtier with southern Irish sympathies who had turned the prince against the northerners.

Thus it was, as Ervine wrote, that "great crowds of one of the warmest-hearted peoples in the world stood for hours in the streets to welcome him and were presented with an unsmiling face and glum and sulky looks. But Ulster people are not easily discouraged from their loyalty, even by princes . . . They disregarded the fretful appearance, and continued to cheer their loudest, and, in a little while, they wore the sulky looks away and were rewarded with the celebrated charm."

These crowds probably contained few nationalists, and nationalist leaders refused to have anything to do with the opening ceremonies.

Indeed it was not until 1965 that the Nationalists, then the main Catholic party, agreed to style themselves the official opposition in Stormont.

The symbolism did not end with the solid architecture; by 1934 a large and striking statue of Edward Carson, the Unionist hero who was prepared to raise an army to fight Home Rule, had been erected at the doors. Cast in bronze, Carson stands in characteristic pose, his hand raised in demagogic defiance of the world. Lord Craigavon, his sturdy lieutenant and the first prime minister of Northern Ireland, is buried in the Stormont grounds.

For the interior Craigavon bought an 18th-century painting of that other Unionist hero, William of Orange, riding in triumph in the manner of a Roman emperor. Here, however, the symbolism was less successful.

Nationalists, naturally, disapproved, but Unionists too were dismayed to see, at the top of the picture giving his blessing to the proceedings below, a figure who could only be the Pope. This may have been historically accurate (King Billy, as an enemy of the overweening Louis XIV, enjoyed some Papal support) but it was not thought appropriate. After it was slashed by visiting Scottish Orangemen the painting was removed to storage - it thus survived the fire.

As for what took place inside, the historian Jonathan Bardon has written: "The quality of debate at Stormont never even began to match the grand surroundings: MPs were often embarrassingly inarticulate, badly informed and concerned only with petty local matters." Periods of recess, Bardon notes, were "extraordinarily long".

The calamities of 1968-72 put an end to all this, and Edward Heath replaced the Stormont Parliament with the first Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, William Whitelaw.

The Stormont House of Commons - there was also a Senate - met for the last time on 28 March 1972. MPs listened politely as the outgoing Prime Minister, Brian Faulkner, lamented the turn of events, and then they drifted off to the lobby and the bar, wherethey exchanged autographed order papers as mementoes. In the words of the Irish Times correspondent of the time, Henry Kelly, (now a Classic FM disc jockey): "Stormont ended quietly, almost in anticlimax."