‘Assembly’ is a body of work set in the Stormont Estate, the home of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The work uses the power of photography to generate allegory - letting the plants, trees and foliage deliver a message from the grounds surrounding the Northern Ireland parliament building about the struggles embedded in a fragile political landscape.
‘Assembly’ suggests the importance of the grounds as a common material space beyond culture in which difference and likeness are both articulated and intertwined in a natural world outside of the political chamber.
Created as an outcome of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, the Northern Ireland Assembly consists of a coalition of members elected by proportional representation. All elected parties have to be part of the Assembly in order for it to function - everyone has to have a say or no one does. In reality the Assembly consists of single identity parties who, for the most part, have antagonistic agendas – either nationalist and for the unification of Ireland or loyalist and against a reunification. Placing these incompatible agendas within a constitutional framework in which power is shared by all, creates a government based on difference in which agreements are hard to come by.
Ironically it may be because of this complex landscape that relative peace has prevailed in the province – the nature of the constitution means a great deal of delicate political traversing is needed in order to reach policy agreements. The downside is that a lot of time is spent negotiating differences that could be used to address the issues of running the country. The general public, wanting progress on real issues like health and social care, education and housing, equal gay rights, tribal flags and parades, get frustrated and are unforgiving of this ‘time wasting’. Peace however is preserved and we have to give the members of the Assembly credit for that.
At times the Assembly grinds to a halt because of some impasse that highlights the unyielding grip some politicians have on their differing agendas and the inability of the political structures to cope - recent years have been turbulent. In September 2014 the assembly's First Minister declared that Stormont was 'unfit for purpose'. In 2015 reports that the IRA was still operative caused further strains within and across all political parties causing one to walk away from the process of governing. With tensions running high and fears of violence returning to the streets there were desperate efforts to repair the frail political process. Meetings where held with the UK and Irish governments, negotiations took place, actions where agreed and a ‘Fresh Start’ was declared in November of 2015. It would seem that in order for political change to be accelerated the political structures occasionally need to be broken, redefined and reformed - this is a good thing for it shows a willingness to grow beyond the old agendas.
The Good Friday peace agreement is now 18 years old. Significantly this means there is a generation of new voters who are unfamiliar with the sounds of explosions and gun fire, security alerts and soldiers on the streets. Some of these voters have difficulty placing themselves in either a nationalist or loyalist camp and are ultimately frustrated by the old rival agendas of the existing Assembly. This generation and ones right behind will no doubt bring pressure for further change and hopefully some will deliver that change through their own political involvement in a future Assembly.
Martin Seeds, 2016
Text by Alex Kane
The sheer beauty, grandeur and setting of Stormont takes your breath away. And that, as it happens, has been one of the crucial, yet mostly unnoticed factors in the success of the Northern Ireland peace process. For all of the psychological problems which nationalists may have had with the building that housed a succession of one-party unionist governments for decades, the physical, natural setting has made them feel comfortable. So comfortable, in fact, that an argument in favour of locating the new Assembly somewhere else in Belfast never ever gained traction.
Comfort, in this case, doesn’t mean pampered and cosseted. It meant a setting where old enemies could relax a little and get to know each other. The scale of both the building and the grounds allowed them the space to be in the same place at the same time (during the delicate peace talks in the run-up to the Good Friday Agreement the parties spent most of their time in separate, cramped rooms in a very ugly civil service building), yet without falling over each other in confined, uncomfortable places.
As they got to know each other they found it easier to share a chat and cigarette together, gathered together around an outside bin. Nicotine, like so many other addictions, doesn’t distinguish between unionists and nationalists. Sometimes they bumped into each other’s families in the playground just inside one of the main entrances to the grounds. Sometimes they met each other as they walked a dog. Each one of those unintended meetings shoved them a little closer together because they began to realize that, politics apart, they were pretty much the same under the skin. Even during the ‘difficult moments’ since 1998 those unintended encounters continued and played their part in keeping the structures from collapse.
Another, again unnoticed feature, is that the grounds are a wonderful mix of the public and the very intimate. Politicians, party staff, civil servants, journalists, lobbyists, porters, security staff and canteen and tearoom workers walk those grounds on sunny days. Sometimes it’s just for a smoke; or to clear their heads after meetings and debates, or to get their only few minutes of exercise in an always busy schedule, or simply because they need to escape. And sometimes it’s because they hope to engineer an ‘accidental’ meeting and a few private, unrecorded words with someone from a rival party—in other words, the sort of thing that happens in ‘normal’ democracies.
I’ve walked those grounds hundreds of times. I love the fact that you can lose sight of Parliament Building when you wander through the leafier parts and then suddenly catch an unexpected glimpse from an unexpected angle: and, depending on the time of year, catch it in an entirely different light. I love the sight of people, from all parties, standing at their office windows and simply soaking in the views across east Belfast and into the nearby hills. I love the fact that the spaces inside and outside have reduced in size as we all got to know each other.
This may seem an odd thing to say, but I’m not sure that the peace process would have worked without the scale and setting of Stormont. Unionists learned that it was big enough to share. Nationalists realized that it was unthreatening enough to share. The public—allowed in when a former Secretary of State opened up the grounds—realized that it was oddly intimate rather than coldly aloof. Peace is not just about the absence of violence and political hostility. Peace is also about physical calm, natural beauty, open space and room, inside and out, to share easily and at your own pace.
Alex Kane is a political commentator, writer and journalist