The Speaker used the opportunity to give a wide ranging speech on his theme of “respect” to set out how we views using Stormont to forge reconciliation and consensus.
In making his remarks he began by reflecting on the tone of debate in the Assembly chamber;
When I am presiding over debates in the Chamber it is my role to ensure that Members are able to express their views and are able to be heard. Often, it is a question of balance. No matter how much they disagree with an opposing view, Members can respond but they cannot make it impossible for someone to give their opinion. Those who shout loudest can often have the least to say and are not the only ones who should be heard.
Conversely, Members cannot abuse the Chamber by making overtly provocative remarks which could not pass without reaction. In extreme cases, I have to judge between those deliberately causing offence and those deliberately seeking to be offended. Often you will hear me or the Deputy Speakers call for courtesy, good temper and moderation but I can sum it up in one word – respect.
Just as my role extends outside the Chamber, the value of respect resonates right across our society. I would like to use my time in office to do what I can to build upon that.
McLaughlin also reflected on the importance of being able to commemorate St Patrick’s Day in Parliament Buildings and his desire to go further in the future;
Despite my ambition for a more united celebration of St Patrick, I know it means a lot to many in the community to see this building bathed in green tomorrow. That is a positive step forward in demonstrating respect.
However, it would have been wrong to consider St Patrick’s Day in isolation. I am absolutely delighted that this building will have an orange glow on the 12th of July. Some people might be surprised at me saying that. Some might not be happy with me saying that. My approach is simple, you can’t expect anyone else to respect your culture if you don’t respect theirs. You don’t have to agree but you can respect and at least try to understand why it is important to the other person. The history and importance of Orange culture to many in our society can no more be denied than the history and importance of the Irish language to others. However, that is the direction where much of our public debate on these issues would take us.
He also spoke of some of the difficulties that lie ahead in reaching out to recognise each others history;
Parliament Buildings will also be lit up in red for Remembrance Day in November. There are few acts to which respect is more connected than remembrance. There have been some positive moves forward in recent years but we still have a distance to travel to be united in remembrance. This was emphasised to me when, as Principal Deputy Speaker, I led an Assembly delegation out to Flanders last November to join a cross parliamentary event at the First World War battle fields.
We are approaching two centenaries next year, the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme. Both of these events are linked in a historical context. Thousands of young Irishmen of the Unionist and the Nationalist traditions fought together on the battlefields of Europe only to join different sides on returning home. It is bound to have some relevance for us to talk about the divisions that opened up then and continue to this day. However, it is also possible that we will travel on the easier and more familiar path, with each community marking exclusively those anniversaries that are important to them.
I have spoken before about the nationalist amnesia surrounding the thousands of young Irishmen who went out to fight in the World War. Unionism too will struggle to acknowledge commemorations of the Easter Rising, but there will also be merit in trying to comprehend the motivations of those who fought for Irish independence.
On this topic he again stresses the importance of respect;
We can just mark these centenaries with inward facing events which will only sustain divisions, or we can reach out and make attempts to understand each other. There will have to be uncomfortable conversations but these events do present the opportunity for us all to demonstrate respect for the right to remember even if we do not agree with what is being remembered.
The Speaker spoke of how Parliament Buildings history are important and should be complimented with new articles of remembrance rather than removed;
The reality we are in is that we have a society of diverse views and cultures in a constitutional arrangement which will not change unless a majority votes otherwise.
If you accept and respect that, then what aspiration will be achieved by attempting to promote and strengthen individual cultures by seeking to diminish and degrade others? That surely can only create a political dynamic of disrespect and all the negative consequences that will engender.
Again let me use this Parliament Buildings as an example. This building contains art and symbolism which does not reflect the cultural identities of all of our Members or communities. However, I will be the first to oppose its removal. This building was shaped by the context in which it was built and that is deeply cherished by much of our community. We cannot ignore our history. It would be disrespectful to try to airbrush that history away. However, do we need to add to and re-balance the symbolism this building?
Well yes we do, and in upholding respect towards the history of this building, we also need to uphold it towards those who have a different view.
Concluding he spoke about how he wants to use his office to create a more positive polity;
It is precisely because I am in a role now which is outside of party politics that I would like to try and set an example. I would like to use the independence and impartiality of the Office of Speaker to set down a marker for respect. Often that impartiality and independence will mean rising above issues and staying out of party politics. However, at other times it might mean prodding and challenging all parts of the Chamber to attempt to arrive in a more positive place.
We are in a society in which huge hurt and sensitivity is always near the surface. I know that for many showing respect to ‘others’ can trigger that hurt. However, not showing respect and exacerbating divisions won’t heal the hurt.
There are no easy answers to the conflict and history we are emerging from. We are still some time away from reconciling our differences, it may be too much to hope in this generation that we will, but if we could accept with respect our differences, it would improve our politics and more importantly relationships on the ground.
Just before he made his remarks I caught up with the Speaker and asked him to elaborate on his drive for respect and reconciliation.