Alex Kane reflects upon the importance of the Stormont Estate during the Good Friday Peace negotiations.
August 2016
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.


Addendum:  Martin Seeds July 2018.
When I started making this work in late 2015 there was an optimism about the future of the Assembly. Perhaps this was due to the Fresh Start Agreement in November that year that re-energised the political landscape. A few months after the work was finished and exhibited in 2016 the Northern Ireland Assembly collapsed. Initially the financial mishandling of an environmental heating scheme was the source of the impasse between the two main political parties. Gradually old grievances emerged and became woven into the arguments until the viability of the Good Friday Agreement began to be questioned. 

In 2018 the twenty year anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement passed uneventfully whilst the Assembly borne from it was silent. The prospect of a future Assembly has been twisted by and into the outcome of BREXIT.



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