The Public Gallery At Stormont

The first time I went into the Public Gallery was around March 1969. It was a school trip of sorts. I bunked off/played truant/mitched/went on the hike/played hookey aged 16 with a fellow member of the  A Level “Economics & Political Studies Class” (EPS). It was a boring afternoon and neither of us were the Physical Education types and sitting in the study hall had as much appeal. My class mate was Rxxxxxx  the Red….a tip of the hat to French 1968 Student leader Danny the Red……but actually Rxxxxxx had been a Commie for years……every class I have ever been in from about age 13 had a little group of Commies…..nowadays kids are goths and emos.

Rxxxxxx was already a member of Peoples Democracy, the left wing mostly student group centred at Queens University, Several from our Catholic grammar school had already been on a few civil rights marches. Rxxxxxx already a veteran of the Stormont Public Gallery. When you think about it, if you play truant, the Stormont Public Gallery is a good place to go. The least likely place to go. In those days it was possible to get a bus from practically the gates of our school in West Belfast accross the city to East Belfast and Stormont.

As explained to me the procedure was to tell the doorman (I dont think we used a word like “security” back then) that you wanted to go into public gallery and you filled in a card and your MP (Paddy Devlin…mine and Johnny McQuade…..his) would sign us in. I recall saying that there was no way Johnny McQuade the Paisleyite firebrand and thuggish streetfighter would sign Rxxxxxx in………but Rxxxxxx said he HAD to do it. As it turned out we never talked to any MP. The “man” came back to us with signed cards and we got into the Public Gallery with our schoolbags…… Although this was the Parliament elected at O’Neill’s Crossroads Election, it was actually a very mundane and dull Question Time…..of a Minister. As I recall (probably wrongly) it was Herbert Kirk. Of course the optics of the place was different to those familiar to TV viewers now. The familiar “horseshoe shape” of the seating was not there …it was adversarial in the Westminster sense and no table for MPs to write at etc. The novelty was seeing for the first time people who we had seen on local TV news most nights as the situation in Norn Iron worsened.…….John Hume for example. And the casualness possibly surprised me…..Paddy Kennedy was kinda practically lying down. What was genuinely good was that after the question time……….Kirk (or the minster I recall as Kirk) went over and sat on the last “opposition” bench and was conversing with two or three MPs….presumably about an issue. Bearing in mind that Id already been on civil rights marches and things were getting worse in early 1969….it was actually very civilised. I actually think that although the Opposition benches were “diverse”, (the Nationalist party a rump and the SDLP yet to be formed)………….the present five party input into everything has more grandstanding. Perhaps in the 21st century  the ever present TV cameras encourage politicians to play to a bigger gallery at home.

2011? Well Ive been back a few times, notably after I retired in 2005 and of course security is an issue but Stormont security staff seem to have a sense of pride in the place and there is a certain openess. Theres not as many regulars in the Public Gallery now. A few years ago I got quite friendly with a former British Air Force veteran who was a regular. Theres a lot more MLAs  (108)….more than double the MPs (52) they had in 1969…..and a lot of political professionals, lobbyists, hangers on and the Secretariat as they call themselves who inhabit a warren of rooms such as the Languages Room. Not to mention the usual TV crews at the bottom of the staircase. Mark Devenport (BBC) seems to have pitch on the right at the bottom of the staircase and Ken Reid (UTV) always seems to be on the other side. Of course in 2011, our journalists are “celebrities”. The Long Gallery is in seeming constant use for some launch or initiative and surprisingly easy to blag your way in to the bottom of a guest list. Sausage rolls, cocktail sausages, sandwiches etc The gift shop/tea place is small. Im sure something could be done to make it bigger and more attractive.

One thing which has bugged me is the facilities for smokers. I am not a smoker myself but on recent visits Ive not seen anyone standing outside smoking……at the side door visible en route from the Security Cabin to the front door….or at the front door. Yet I know people have told me that they are going outside for a smoke………so where do they go? Is there a shelter of some kind round the back or “other” side where the public cant see MLAs, journos, party staffers have a “feg” because it wouldnt look good.

My experience of smokers is that they seem to be a brotherhood or sisterhood far beyond any narrow political party ties and maybe the political smokers get on better with each other than non-smoking party colleagues. So do our politicians and civil servants have a discrete well heated smoking “room” outside the Stormont Building or are they exposed to the elements (on the Hill) just like lesser mortals huddled outside shops and offices in Belfast City Centre?

All in all, a trip to the Public Gallery is a good day out. But not nearly as entertaining as watching Belfast Resident Magistrate Charlie Stewart berate solicitors and hassle police officers in his courtroom in the 1970s. His always entertaining double acts with the creme de la creme of Belfast Society………our petty criminals (and not so petty criminals), many of whom knew the law better than prosecuting police and the solicitors assigned to prosecute or defend them.

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1 Response to The Public Gallery At Stormont

  1. Pingback: #onthehill In which the blogger wonders whether the online coverage is indeed better than being there in person … « Slugger O'Toole

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