The Wedding Cake
The Wedding Cake
A look back at the history of Stormont -- the site of many failed Six-County political initiatives in the past -- but today the focus of renewed political hope. By Nuala McCann.

It is a great white wedding cake of a building, perched on the hills overlooking Belfast.

If the walls of Parliament Buildings could talk, they would whisper tales of intrigue and deception, of battles royal, of brawls in the hall and snowballs flung in defiance across Stormont’s lawns.

The history of the North of Ireland is dominated by this building and Prince of Wales Avenue sweeping down to the statue of old-time unionist leader, Edward Carson: black, imperious, shaking a regal finger at the world.

The original plans were for three buildings - law courts on one side and a civil service building on the other - but in the end, the money ran out.

The big white edifice on the hill stands alone, built in 1932 to serve what unionist James Craig, later Lord Craigavon, once boasted was “a Protestant parliament and a Protestant state”.

A Liverpool architect dreamed up the Greek classical design. He was a precise man and the building was 365 ft long - one foot for every day of the year.

Italian craftsmen made the journey to Belfast to fashion the ornate marble hall which became known as the Great Hall.

King George V opened the NI parliament in 1921, but sent the Prince of Wales to declare the actual new building open in 1932.

Artist William Conor painted the original members of the parliament. According to historical sources he was only paid oe131 6s for his effort, far short of the original oe200 that had been agreed.

During World War II, there were fears that the big white house on the hill was a sure target for German bombers.

The white stone was painted black with a mix of bitumen and cow manure. The roads in the grounds were camouflaged with ash and clinker.

The government also considered removing Lord Carson from his pedestal half way down Prince of Wales Avenue and putting him away for safe keeping. But the sculptor reassured them that he had fashioned a spare head - just in case.

During the 51 years of the ‘Northern Ireland Parliament’, only one Bill sponsored by a non-unionist member was ever passed. Poet and academic Tom Paulin wrote a poem about this, called Of Difference Does it Make or The Wild Birds Act of 1931.

In 1965, DUP leader Ian Paisley pelted snowballs at the then Irish Prime Minister Sean Lemass when he visited Stormont.

We had Sunningdale, the Ulster Workers’ Strike - any amount of controversy captured in grainy 1970s pictures of tractors crawling up the tree-lined avenue in protest mode; politicians shouting, gesticulating, shaking their heads or storming out the doors and storming in.

But the winds of change blew through the tree-lined avenues and kicked up heaps of leaves and great hulking bundles of entrenched thinking.

All has changed utterly.

Journalists remember the day when Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams stood at a window and shouted out to the press corps gathered below: “Get me a united Ireland or I’ll jump!” He was only joking.

But how might Lord Craigavon shiver at the sight of his life-size statue in Stormont’s Great Hall, appearing over the shoulder of Mr Adams in televised Sinn Féin press conferences?

True, the building has seen dark moments. A fire, caused by an electrical fault, destroyed the Assembly Chamber on 2 January 1995 but it was carefully restored.

The last years are a-flicker with sombre images of police Land Rovers lining up the avenue as police went into raid Sinn Féin’s offices in what became known as Stormontgate

Even more recently, the photograph of loyalist Michael Stone wrestled into submission in the doorway of Parliament Buildings, tells a story that has not fully played out.

But there were moments of lightness too. Not least, those brought by former NI Secretary, the late Mo Mowlam, who cast aside ceremony, not to mention her wig, called her associates “babe”, indulged in widespread hugging and helped open up Stormont to everyone.

Those were the days of concerts. Remember the lark in the park? Remember Elton John and the Eagles? How many of the old school politicians spun in their graves as Rod Stewart rasped: “If ya want my body and ya think I’m sexy” on Stormont’s lawns.

Recent figures show that up to 40,000 tourists from 108 countries around the world visit Parliament buildings every year.

Belfast artist Noel Murphy immortalised the modern assembly on canvas. His work was unveiled in February 2003.

John Hume, the former SDLP leader, proved to be his favourite sitter.

“I wish more were like him,” Murphy said at the time. “Most of these politicians talked and talked, which meant it was harder to paint them. If I could have had 107 other John Humes, it would have made this painting much easier.”

In December 2005, the old lady on the hill who seemed so far removed from the ordinary people, opened her big iron gates to thousands who travelled to Stormont to pay tribute to one of Northern Ireland’s greatest exports, footballing legend George Best.

His funeral took place in the Great Hall. He was a boy from the Cregagh estate who could never have dreamed his life.

And could anyone have ever dreamed a day when the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Féin would be sharing power in a new Northern Ireland Assembly?

Mr Paisley - Dr No - the man who spent decades saying “Never, never, never” is now poised to lead his party into a power- sharing coalition with his old enemy, Sinn Féin.

The honeymoon is over. What hopes for the new assembly and these folks in their house on the hill?

It is a big white wedding cake of a building. But when it comes to politics, can Stormont ever be the scene of a happy marriage?

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