Odd that the table on which the Union was signed and a portrait of the Queen by a local artist have been quietly removed from Stormont, according to Jim Allister, a hawk eyed stirrer of eminence.
These items are surely less controversial than the bronzes of Carson and Craig and the old boy’s grave outside the south entrance. Will someone wage a useless battle to have the statues removed and dig the old boy and his wife up? There’s little doubt that for the building alone, Craig deserves to be memorialised, as the definitive account makes clear by Alan Greer in Irish Historical Studies May 1999( No 123 (£) “Sir James Craig and the Construction of Parliament Buildings at Stormont”
There was a ‘band of politicians and civil servants virulently critical of the government of Northern Ireland and suspicious that Ulster Unionists would enjoy the benefits of local autonomy at the expense of the British taxpayer’.16 Sir Frederick Banbury, for example, the Conservative M.P. for the City of London, had ‘great regard for the Ulster Party and for the City of Belfast, but I thought that they were going to have their own Parliament, and were going to deal with their own affairs. Why should I put my hand into my nearly depleted pocket in order to provide premises for my hon. Friends in Ulster?’
Although the formal decision was one for Whitehall, Craig was almost single-handedly responsible for the acquisition of the Stormont estate. Indeed, he was so keen to purchase the site that he arranged a personal loan of £3,000 from his bank to use as a deposit.
This is not a sectarian point, really not. It’s just that’s it’s better to add symbols to public spaces rather then remove them, to go for “ as well as.. rather than instead of..” and avoid the old zero sum game like the plague.
Can we learn lessons from elsewhere? Outside Westminster are two dubious monuments , to Richard the Lion Heart and Oliver Cromwell . Richard didn’t give a fig for England other than to bleed it dry to fund his obsessive crusading. And among his many ruthless acts, Cromwell closed Parliament down. But both were heroes in the Victorian pageant of English history. and so they were memorialised. Perhaps we can we get to that point in closer than 300 hundred years?
But seriously, who or what can/should be commemorated at Stormont that nationalists would welcome without winding unionists up enough for them to impose their undoubted veto? So far we have the big picture of Assembly members. Should we follow the precedent of the MPs’ offices block, Portcullis House at Westminster and regularly commission portraits of distinguished members? ( ok that begs a big question). Art work by MLAs is no stranger to the Stormont so what about more artwork of some of them on permanent display?
To capture generations of nationalist neglect, perhaps a montage of the whole first generation SDLP which included keen parliamentarians like Fitt, Currie and Paddy Devlin.( Hume despite his undoubted eminence was never keen on Stormont). Older figures like Wee Joe Devlin, Edddie McAteer and Cahir Healey? And in the end can we really leave out the DFM and senior friends? Or should we go for something incomprehensible and abstract?
Do we need another artistic panel headed up by that keen connoissseur Eamonn Mallie ?
Any thoughts that might actually be accepted? The one approach that should not happen is to sneak stuff away without letting on. Evasiveness of that kind implies a guilty conscience.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London