Should Stormont be replaced by a new Assembly building in Derry/Londonderry?

Stormont, or more precisely, the Parliament Buildings, has stood for ninety-one years but it is now time to replace it with a new Assembly building in Derry/Londonderry. Why? Because we desperately need, not just reform of the Good Friday Agreement, but a new place of government that will inspire all future generations.

And, before you ask, no I’m not suggesting this because Sinn Fein happened to call for it back in the 1990s. I accept that there may well be historical and political reasons why some people here would like to see Stormont mothballed, temporarily or permanently, and a new Assembly building constructed. This also may be linked to their view of the partition of Ireland but that is not my reasoning.

Rather, my motivation to discuss this subject lies in the near 20 years that I lived in Scotland where I was inspired by the Scots vision for a new parliament in Edinburgh. To create a home for their newly devolved parliament following the act of devolution (The Scotland Act 1998).

The Scottish Parliament is located at Holyrood, in the heart of the capital, and was designed by the late Spanish architect, Enric Miralles, who sadly died before the building was completed. I remember clearly at the time that the project was not without controversy – the massive financial overspends featured heavily on the news bulletins each evening.

But, nonetheless, Scotland ended up with a spectacular new building, of exceptional design and craftsmanship, which I had the pleasure of visiting some years back with my good wife.

But the question is, would a new Assembly building for Northern Ireland equally inspire us?

Our Parliament Buildings date back to 1932 and was designed by Sir Arnold Thornely. And as we know, is the seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly and was built because Ulster needed a parliament building as part of the Northern Ireland Home Rule region, in accordance with the Government of Ireland Act 1920.

Undoubtably there will those who have genuine affection for the place and that long walk up the hill to the seat of power. But others will associate it with political protests and demonstrations from days gone by, dominating stone statues, security alerts, or financial scandals.

Personally, I have always liked the building, its grandeur and edifice, and as a younger man I always enjoyed playing tennis in the estate grounds during the warm summer months. But whatever your views about Stormont, I don’t believe that this should be a reason not to debate its future.

Even the name conjures up an image in our minds. This might be a positive image, or perhaps a darker image, but it’s never neutral. I would be surprised if anyone who has previously heard of the place did not have a preconception about what it is like. Especially from those darkened, weather-beaten, news reports from the grass lawns out front telling us of the latest crisis, violent attack, or political stalemate.

What must foreign visitors think of the place that emblazoned their tv screens for all those years during The Troubles? Is it a grand magnificent construct, built in the neoclassical style, or is a monstrosity set high on a hill and peering down at its undeserving people?

Would a new Assembly building bring a little solace or relief to our restless and wearisome political upheavals? All this, regardless of anyone’s constitutional position for either a United Ireland or a desire to remain in the United Kingdom.

These are big questions; however, we need to be realistic about the costs and timescale of a new building, especially given the current budgetary restrictions on Departments’ expenditure, the cost-of-living crisis, the pressure on the NHS, the collapse of the Assembly itself, and the desperate need of infrastructure renewal. Even though I loathe to say it, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, whoever that was at the time, would need to delve deep into their pockets to help fund it.

But, then why not, the Scots and the Welsh got their shiny new parliament buildings, and our current Parliament Buildings would make a splendid hotel or resort. Besides, the challenge to realise this vision might actually bring us all closer together.

As for the new Assembly building itself, its most important feature would be a semi-circular seated debating chamber so that never again would Northern Irish politicians have to face each other in an adversarial manner. No longer would we witness those ugly scenes of one section of community eye-balling the other section of community across the chamber during a heated debate, whilst the others look sideways. This is no way to run a modern democracy.

And finally, why would a new Assembly building be located in Derry/Londonderry?

Well, the answer is, why not? The Maiden City has been through its fair share of trauma over the years and it, and the people of Derry/Londonderry, deserve a break. But I am open to suggestions for an alternative location.

As I draw this to a close, I say this. I have been disheartened by all the negative talk this week about Stormont never returning and I thought we needed to inject a little positivity and hope into the future.

What better way than proposing a new start, a clean slate, and a new Assembly building.

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