#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