#onthehill In which the blogger wonders whether the online coverage is indeed better than being there in person …

If the Vodafone network penetrating the stone-clad Parliament Buildings had made the leap from 2G to 3G, some of this might have been uploaded during the day!

First off, should you want to go and watch your MLAs at work, getting into Parliament Buildings – where the Northern Ireland Assembly and its committees meet – is pretty straightforward. If you explain that you’re a visitor, you’ll be waved up the drive and directed to the visitors’ car park (which fills up very quickly).

After you pass through the security hut scanners, you’ll be able to pick up a pass at the reception desk inside the main door. You’ll now be standing in the Great Hall, with the grand staircase in front of you, Paisley peeping out from one side, with the main Assembly chamber in to the left, and the Senate (used as a large committee room) to the right. There’s a coffee and gift shop – selling Stormont Fudge!

The security staff and stewards in Parliament Buildings are incredibly helpful and friendly. There’s an obvious pride in making the building as accessible and welcoming as possible … though some MLAs pointed to the lack of disabled access at the front of the building and longed for improvements.

To make the 50 yard journey from where you’re now standing to the public gallery will however, take you on an adventure worthy of Dora the Explorer. (Parents with your children will know the kind of story books I’m referring to!)

To get into the public gallery to watch the Assembly (in ‘plenary session’) you’ll need to fill out your name and address on another clipboard kept near the Assembly entrance and collect a sticker.

But you can’t bring bags or phones into the public gallery – just pen and paper – so you’ll need to go across the hall towards the Senate to find a locker. Bring a £1 coin. If you’re lucky, someone will have left one in the locker the day before. Otherwise, you need to feed the lock in order to pull out the key. You get your £1 back when you reopen the locker … unless you leave it for the next person.

Sticker. Locker. Key. What’s next?

Then a steward will direct you upstairs where you’ll once more be reminded about not having any mobiles.

Your entrance to the public gallery will most likely cause the Speaker to look up in a slightly distracted way. You’re in his line of sight, and he may be wary of further hecklers!

There is no good seat in the public gallery where the entire Assembly is on view. It’s like the old runway viewing corridor at Belfast International Airport (before they closed it). You either can’t see the DUP, Sinn Fein, or the UUP, Alliance, SDLP and the McClarty/Allister/Agnew triplets. An MLA who is out of sight will be called to speak, and you will – inevitably – lean over to try and catch a glimpse. This is when the steward will move in and point to the signs stuck to the front of the gallery, in-between the TV monitors which fill in the bits you can’t see.

For safety reasons please refrain from leaning over the rail and please do not set any items on the ledge. Issued on behalf of the Facilities Directorate.

Turn up early and you’ll still miss the first minute of business. The Assembly starts with Prayer. The screens outside go blank. They seem to pray in private. Not sure who, or how. (Forgot to ask.) But members of the public can’t enter the public gallery until that’s over. So most likely by the time you are ushered in, a minister will be launching into their second paragraph of their statement.

Also note that unless you’ve a friend on the inside, you’ll not know the timing of anything you’re about to see. The Business Diary (listing plenary session and committees) and the Order Paper (listing the plenary/full Assembly business for a day) only indicate the start times. So you’ll be in the dark that Ministerial Questions always start at 2pm on Tuesdays after lunch. And you may need to tune into Good Morning Ulster to know that – like this morning – there’s a major ministerial statement being inserted between Prayers and Committee Business.

The “Hansard dance” is well worth watching. Above the Speaker to the left hand side of the press gallery, a parliamentary reporter sits taking notes about who is speaking. At the end of their allotted five minutes, they leave the gallery to go and type up their five minutes of speech. Meanwhile, the next person has already been sitting previewing the general atmosphere in a chair opposite the primary reporter. They skip across to the hot seat, and the next reporter slips in the door to be ready to start the triangular game of musical chairs all over again.

And you should count the number of mints that are pilfered from a plate sitting on the Sinn Fein side of the Speaker’s desk. MLAs will wander over, lean down to say something to the aide sitting to the side of the Speaker, and then grab a mint for themselves or sometimes a party colleague. It’s crying out for the plate to sit on a sensor, and the number of mints to be projected onto the a big screen above the Speaker’s head. Perhaps as a rolling graph of the ratio of mints pilfered per MLA present in the chamber!

Across two half hour sessions of ministerial question time – Education (John O’Dowd) and Justice (David Ford) – there was little heat and little light. No new facts. No novel explanations or justifications of policy. Frequent ruling of supplementary questions as off topic by the (deputy) Speaker, followed up by points of order at the close of that business to ask for a formal ruling from the Speaker’s office. Some of it was down to point scoring and perhaps an element of grandstanding. Some was down to too many departments with overlapping remits.

Even the sight and sound of a minister announcing “one of the most important reports in the history of this Assembly” only deserved half an hour of response from MLAs who had had sight of the thick Compton report for 35 minutes before the plenary session started. If MLAs can’t be trusted – or departments can’t be organised – to give the Assembly access to a report for a couple of hours before business begins, then what’s the point of discussing it?

Like seeing sausages being made, viewing the work of the Assembly in real life wasn’t the best of experiences. I’m not sure I’ll hurry back. It’s not difficult to get into the building or navigate to the public gallery or a committee room. Any MLAs you meet or approach in the Great Hall will be very courteous and pleasant. Even if you’re a blogger! But the view is poor, the acoustics aren’t great, and the content is far from compelling. And with the integration of the Assembly’s Information Management System (AIMS) into the revamped Assembly website, the ‘at home’ experience is getting better too, with the promise of XML feeds and (unusually in NI) a spirit of open data.

But it’s worth seeing at least once. It’s warm, free, and you’ll get a good welcome. Go on a Monday or a Tuesday, catch the 10am or 3pm tour, and take in a debate or a set of ministerial questions. It’s democracy … as we know it.

Over coming days, I’ll post the MLAs’ end-of term self assessment report card of the Assembly this ‘term’, more general opinions on working as an MLA, together with one MLA’s view on making committees work in a constructive way, and an insight into the Assembly’s Research and Information Service.

Update – adding link to Fitzjames Horse’s post about his trips to the public gallery at Stormont over the years

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  • The first time I went into the Public Gallery was around March 1969.
    It was a school trip of sorts. I bunked off/played truant/mitched/went on the hike/played hooked aged 16 witha fellow member of the “Economics & Political Studies Class” (EPS). It was a boring afternoon and neither of us were the Physical Education types and sitting in the study hall had as much appeal.
    My class mate was Rxxxxxx the Red….a tip of the hat to French 1968 Student leader Danny the Red……but actually Rxxxxxx had been a Commie for years……every class I have ever been in from about age 13 had a little group of Commies…..nowadays kids are goths and emos.

    Rxxxxxx was already a member of Peoples Democracy and we had already been on a few civil rights marches. And already a veteran of the Stormont Public Gallery.
    When you think about it, if you play truant, the Stormont Public Gallery is a good place to go.
    In those days it was possible to get a bus from practically the gates of our school in West Belfast to Stormont.

    As explained to me the procedure was to tell the doorman (I dont think we used a word like “security” back then that you wanted to go into public gallery and you filled in a card and your MP (Paddy Devlin…mine and Johnny McQuade…..his) would sign us in. I recall saying that there was no way Johnny McQuade the Paisleyite firebrand would sign Rxxxxxx in………but Rxxxxxx he HAD to do it.
    As it turned out we never saw any MP. The “man” came back to us with signed cards and we got into the Public Gallery with our schoolbags……
    Although this was the Parliament elected at O’Neills Crossroads Election, it was actually a very mundane and dull Question Time…..of a Minister. As I recall (probably wrongly) it was Herbert Kirk.
    Of course the optics of the place was different. The familiar “horseshoe shape” of the seating was not there …it was adversarial in the Westminster sense and no table for MPs to write at etc.
    The novelty was seeing for the first time people who we had seen on TV news most nights…….John Hume for example. And the casualness possibly surprised me…..Paddy Kennedy was kinda practically lying down. What was genuinely good was that after the question time……….Kirk (or the minster I recall as Kirk) went over and sat on the last “opposition” bench and was conversing with two or three MPs….presumably about an issue.
    Bearing in mind that Id already been on civil rights marches and things were getting worse in early 1969….it was actually very civilised.
    I actually think that although the Opposition benches were “diverse”, (the Nationalist party a rump and the SDLP yet to be formed)………….the present five party input into everything has more grandstanding.

    2011.
    Well Ive been back a few times, notably after I retired in 2005 and of course security is a issue but as pointed out above there is a sense of pride in the place and a certain openess. Theres not as many regulars in the Gallery now. A few years ago I got quite friendly with a former British Air Force veteran who was a regular.
    Theres a lot more MLAs ….more than double the MPs they had in 1969…..and a lot of political professionals, lobbyists, hangers on and the Secretariat as they call themselves who inhabit a warren of rooms such as the Languages Room. Not to mention the usual TV crews at the bottom of the staircase.
    and the place is more open. The Long Gallery is in seeming constant use for some launch or initiative and surprisingly easy to blag your way in to the bottom of a guest list.
    The gift shop/tea place is small. Im sure something could be done to make it bigger and more attractive.

    One thing which has bugged me is the facilities for smokers.
    I am not a smoker myself but on recent visits Ive not seen anyone standing outside smoking……at the side door visible en route from the Security Cabin to the front door….or at the front door
    Yet I know people have told me that they are going outside for a smoke………so where do they go?
    Is there a shelter of some kind round the back or “other” side where the public cant see MLAs, journos, party staffers have a “feg” because it wouldnt look good.

    My experience of smokers is that they seem to be a brotherhood or sisterhood far beyond any narrow political party ties and maybe the political smokers get on better with each other than non-smoking party colleagues.
    So do our politicians and civil servants have a discrete well heated smoking “room” outside the Stormont Building or are they exposed to the elements (on the Hill) just like lesser mortals huddled outside shops and offices in Belfast City Centre.

  • Cynic2

    Its even better on idad. That way you can watch in bed and doze off

  • Cynic2

    iPad

    If Santa doesnt bring that new keyboard ………..

  • Ah theres a lot to be said for a Public Gallery, although the best was Charlie Stewarts Magistrates Court in the 1970s.
    On a par with the ladies who liked to knit their way thru a day at the guillotine.

  • “an insight into the Assembly’s Research and Information Service.”

    Alan, the search facility on the new Assembly website seems to be fairly user friendly. You can also print out a result to a printer or to a (searchable) PDF file.

  • “you can’t bring bags or phones into the public gallery”

    [aside]Moyle District Council is so much more hospitable. One of the SF councillors served me coffee and biscuits the last time I was there. I’ve also been offered a Black Bush in the Mayor’s Parlour!

  • ……and I understand that mince pies were available yesterday “on the hill”

  • FJH – mince pies? Where? I managed to go without food the whole day – despite the 90 minute adjournment for lunch in the chamber.

    I did spy tea, coffee, *jugs* of water, and fruit for the MLAs at one committee room. Didn’t see any eating the fruit!

  • Queneau

    “So do our politicians and civil servants have a discrete well heated smoking “room” outside the Stormont Building or are they exposed to the elements (on the Hill) just like lesser mortals huddled outside shops and offices in Belfast City Centre”.

    No such luck on special/humane treatment for smokers. There’s a second side entrance/exit on the West-facing side of the building, which is sheltered from view, but from nothing else. Access to this exit is restricted as it’s just behind the Assembly Chamber, at the back of the Speaker’s chair.

    I can confirm that it’s the one area where we all huddle together in mutual condemnation of non-smokers.

  • Ive often wondered. Certainly the smoking fraternity seem to go out the Michael Stone Memorial Front Door f, turn right and their heads are visible as they go past the windows. …at a rate of knots
    There is a great democracy and egalitarianism among smokers. Certainly in the days of “smoking rooms” at my own place of employment, the huddled masses (in any part of the hierarchy) barely visible thru the fog, seemed to know more about what was going on than healthy people.

  • Gaul2012

    The offical smoking area is actually located in the basement court yard, which the majority of staff and some MLA’s would frequently use with some MLA’s prefering to go out the West Door. This smoking area, alas, is also unheated and exposed to the elements although it does have a roof to keep the rain off you.

    I would agree with your comment that political smokers get on better with each other than non-smoking party colleagues!