Sinn Fein concerned about making ‘dangerous’ Stormont the home of NI Assembly

Sinn Fein raised security concerns with the Government about housing Northern Ireland’s new Assembly at Stormont, archives have disclosed.

The exchange is mentioned in a confidential Northern Ireland Office memo that summaries a meeting between Minister of State Paul Murphy and a Sinn Fein delegation in June 1998.

The memo, released by the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland, also reveals that Sinn Fein negotiator Gerry Kelly joked about removing Stormont’s famous statue of Lord Carson in the discussions about symbols and emblems on the estate in the unionist heartland of east Belfast.

The meeting took place on June 23, two days before members were elected to the new look legislature.

Ulster powersharing
Gerry Kelly joked about the potential removal of Carson’s statue during the meeting with Paul Murphy (PA)

At that point, Secretary of State Mo Mowlam had proposed holding the inaugural meeting of the Assembly on July 1 inside Castle Buildings on the Stormont estate – the same place the Good Friday Agreement had been signed in April.

Further meetings of the Assembly were then to take place at Parliament Buildings at Stormont over the summer, but the new legislature had been given the power to chose a new permanent home if members wished to relocate.

The Sinn Fein position on the location issue was articulated by Mr Kelly and party colleague Bairbre de Brun.

“Ms de Bruin raised the issue of consultation,” the note read.

“The party had been asked about locations and had given its view but had then heard nothing more until a letter from the Secretary of State (Mo Mowlam) arrived informing them of a location which was strongly opposed.

“Such actions presented the party with enormous yet unnecessary problems within the community, making it out to be unimportant in the scheme of things and adding to the general cumulative effect of exclusion.

“Ms de Bruin added, rather pointedly, that given a choice, the Government appeared to continually want to support either the unionist or status quo position on any Agreement issues. Decisions like locations had more than just a symbolic effect and the Government needed to realise this. A neutral venue for everyone for the inaugural meeting was the proper solution and venues for it are still available.

“Mr Murphy defended the Castle Buildings decision on purely practical grounds. There had been no other option for Government in the circumstances. Castle Buildings and later Parliament Buildings would be the venues for meetings until the Assembly itself chose a different location. Mr Kelly made the point that it was dangerous for Sinn Fein to get to the Stormont Estate. Every visit caused major security headaches for the party.”

The confidential memo reveals the extent of republican concerns that progress on several key parts of the 1998 peace agreement – such as demilitarisation and legislation to grant the early release of prisoners – had stalled.

“Again Mr Kelly pressed strongly on the timing of release and to a lesser extent the numbers involved in the initial tranche,” it stated.

Salmond in talks on setting up devolution body
Paul Murphy was a Northern Ireland Office minister at the time of the exchanges (PA)

The note said that Mr Kelly outlined Sinn Fein concerns over a “range of issues affecting the credibility and momentum of the process flowing from the Agreement”.

He said issues with parades and sentencing had “sent shockwaves through republican and nationalist communities”.

“Mr Kelly said those communities saw Government bending over backwards to unionism, which itself was dragging the process out and all this was presenting a massive worry for nationalists and republicans that everything in the Agreement, other than what Unionists wanted to move on, would stop (for example, demilitarisation),” it read.

The note, dated June 24, 1998, said “without doubt the most difficult aspect of the meeting” was Sinn Fein’s concern that a full shadow Executive would not be appointed at the inaugural meeting, instead of just designate first and deputy first ministers.

The reference to the landmark statue of unionist icon Sir Edward Carson came in a section of the memo titled “symbols and emblems”.

“Mr Kelly asked what symbols and emblems would be displayed (or removed – Carson’s statue was briefly mentioned in a slightly humorous way) in the Assembly and what might constitute an opening ceremony,” the note recorded.

“Mr Murphy responded by saying that the Government was not proposing to display any symbols or emblems. Furthermore Assembly members’ stationary would only carry their name – nothing else. There were no plans for an opening ceremony – other than signing the roll and the individual designation of members.”