Could we relinquish “the hand of history” by building a 21C Assembly away from Stormont hill?

When Tony Blair stepped out of the Hillsborough hothouse in 1998 and announced that ‘the hand of history’ was on the negotiators’ collective shoulder, he sounded just a little over-awed: ‘A day like today is not a day for sound bites, we can leave those at home, but I feel the hand of history upon our shoulder with respect to this, I really do.’

Now that the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement has come and gone, looking at the lack of progress in Northern Ireland, the hand of history seems distinctly less benign and much heavier, if not indeed frozen and snarled.

Stormont remains locked – as it was from its opening in 1932 – into a sectarian head-count between the political power bases and needs of unionism and nationalism. But recalling the habitual trooping up and down the marbled stairs of Stormont and facing the media on the fabled steps outside, to repeat party mantras, or the progress of current ‘talks’ or, more likely, the lack of it, the thought occurred that maybe the heavy hand of Stormont itself should be reviewed.

Is the drama of being up there on the Castlereagh hills informing certain attitudes of brinkmanship? Is it appropriate in 21st century society for such an imposing building to dominate the parliamentary landscape of a post-industrial democracy that should be looking after all its people’s welfare (health, housing, education) by looking forward much more, and not less?

Is it time to rethink the physical architecture of Northern Ireland’s governing institution alongside the other legacy issues in an effort to bring some fresh thinking into the equation? Why not think about taking all those (absent) elected representatives, their staffs, and civil service and relocate them in a custom-built, fit-for-purpose modern building on the ground level with the rest of the citizens?

Just think what initiating a project that could turn out to be for an up and coming generation of architects and builders and craftsmen and -women and the boost it could provide for the local economy. There has to be a suitable site within the spectacular lough shore that carries both connectivity and positive historical resonances.

And as for Stormont? For the splendid grounds, a People’s Park for music, gardens, you name it; for the building, an enterprise, digital and innovation academy. Foregrounded within those corridors of power and former party rooms, create a living archival testament to the hundreds of thousands of ordinary men and women who worked across the province in the linen, farming, engineering, manufacturing industries by which the north was once globally recognised throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

And also provide a portrait of northern society for all those hundreds of thousands who had to leave to find work and a life for themselves elsewhere. Could that work? Would that not be a good way of sign-posting a really better future and even perhaps educating, away from politically-driven stereotypes, many present-day politicians in the social and economic history of their own place?

Some might see such an idea anathema and another seditious diminution of the cultural past of unionism.  But maybe, instead, such an imaginative move could secure a different kind of united future to include all the strands of northern Irish society.

For by its very impressive physical location, Stormont and the weight that goes with it, might benefit from a new lease of creative life; of being re-imagined and culturally releasing and in so doing, the ‘History’ we have trailed after for so long and with such unproductive results, could take a walk.

Gerald Dawe’s The Wrong Country: Essays on Modern Irish Writing will be published in June by Irish Academic Press.

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