In May 2015, the Stormont Executive and Assembly agreed in principle, through its Assembly Commission, to transform the grounds of the estate into a powerful representation of the troubled history of our peoples. Below, a tour guide describes what can be seen from the deck of the tour bus:
As you travel through the main gates, on your left you can see twin statues which pit two stern faced men against one another: King William of Orange and Patrick Sarsfield, recalling the years of the Williamite Wars in Ireland. The mini statues of the geese in the small pond beneath the figures recall the Flight of the Wild Geese. The orange lilies in the tidy garden beside the pond represent the Orange tradition which remembers this conflict annually in Belfast and across Northern Ireland.
Just ahead on the right, there is a monument upon which the words of Seamus Heaney’s ‘At a Potato Digging’ have been etched, recalling the effects of An Gorta Mor, the famine, in Ireland. The statue is of William Sharman Crawford MP, who was Chairman of the Newtownards Board of Guardians during the famine. The small field (patch of ground) behind the wall is used for planting potatoes by children from local schools which, when harvested, are eaten by the members of all parties in the Northern Ireland Executive as part of a special shared meal with one another, their Dublin counterparts and the British Secretary of State annually in Stormont.
Further along can be found the statues of Rev Henry Cooke, leading 19th century unionist figure (the statue was moved from College Square East in Belfast in 2016.) Facing Cooke can be found a statue of Joseph Biggar, a leading nationalist political figure of the 19th century.
The impressive statue of Edward Carson, unveiled in 1933, predated the recent renovation by some 80 odd years, but in reality it belongs to a different place: a time when Northern Ireland was not a shared entity but rather one exclusively reflective of the dominant British and unionist tradition.
Carson remains where he was originally located, but to his left can be found a statue incorporating two figures: one is the famous signatory of the 1916 Proclamation, James Connolly, and alongside him the republican and trade union activist, Winifred Carney. Carney’s story defies our troubled history: a Bangor born Irish republican, close ally of Connolly who went on to marry a Shankill Road Orangeman and former Ulster Volunteer. The floral display at the foot of the monument includes Easter lilies, symbolising the Irish republican tradition.
The Many Faces of Us garden on the left as we approach Carson and Connolly includes tributes to Harry Ferguson (famous inventor), Thomas Andrews (shipbuilder), CS Lewis (author), Seamus Heaney (poet), Thomas McCabe (18th century founder of United Irishmen and noted anti-slavery business leader) and Inez McCormack (renowned feminist and trade union activist.)
It is said that it is exactly one mile from the gates of the estate to Carson’s statue. But just beyond the statue and on the slope leading up to the steps of Parliament Buildings sits the final statue: that of two seated figures, comfortably sitting beside one another and smiling as they gaze down on Carson and what has passed. It is said that the two figures represent Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, political giants loathed and revered in almost equal measure, individuals who define our collective baggage, contradictions and yet developing capacity to compromise and ultimately face into a shared future together. The figures face east, inspired by the Buddhist conviction that enlightenment could be reached by meditating on the rising sun.
That concludes this part of our tour, but remember to look out for the statues of Lord Craigavon and Joe Devlin when you enter into Parliament Buildings itself.