Belfast Telegraph

'Rebalance Stormont's symbolism'

The symbolism at Stormont needs to be rebalanced, Speaker Mitchel McLaughlin said.

The republican said Parliament Buildings should better reflect the journey made by Northern Ireland since the 1998 Agreement.

But he said he was delighted the institution would be lit up orange on the Twelfth of July and called for mutual respect.

"In upholding respect towards the history of this building, we also need to uphold it towards those who have a different view.

"Stormont should better reflect the journey we have made since 1998 and the society this Assembly now represents, inclusive of all political opinion, all faiths and none, men and women, the whole community.

"Adding to what we have already achieved can be addressed in a consensual way without provoking controversy, by focusing on positive outcomes, by democratic persuasion rather than confrontation.

"Achieving a balance in this society, which demonstrates a respect to all without being deliberately provocative, should be of no threat to anyone. Achieving that balance in a way which upholds respect to all and avoids conscious disrespect to anyone is an important goal."

A statue of Lord Edward Carson, the voice of Ulster Unionism at the time of partition, stands at the top of the hill leading to Stormont.

The building's history, as the stop-start seat of the regional government of Northern Ireland, has been a chronicle of Northern Ireland's past, from doubling as an RAF operations centre during the Second World War to hosting unionist protest against the Anglo/Irish Agreement to Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness sharing power in 2007.

Mr McLaughlin said: "This building contains art and symbolism which does not reflect the cultural identities of all of our members or communities. However, I will be the first to oppose its removal.

"This building was shaped by the context in which it was built and that is deeply cherished by much of our community. We cannot ignore our history. It would be disrespectful to try to airbrush that history away."

He was hosting the Speaker's annual St Patrick's event in Parliament Buildings.

"Despite my ambition for a more united celebration of St Patrick, I know it means a lot to many in the community to see this building bathed in green tomorrow. That is a positive step forward in demonstrating respect.

"However, it would have been wrong to consider St Patrick's Day in isolation. I am absolutely delighted that this building will have an orange glow on the 12th of July.

"Some people might be surprised at me saying that. Some might not be happy with me saying that.

"My approach is simple, you can't expect anyone else to respect your culture if you don't respect theirs. You don't have to agree but you can respect and at least try to understand why it is important to the other person.

"The history and importance of Orange culture to many in our society can no more be denied than the history and importance of the Irish language to others. However, that is the direction where much of our public debate on these issues would take us."

He said the series of negotiations since 1998 have demonstrated that we can only move forward on the basis of discussion and agreement.

"While that implies an acknowledgement that there are a range of different views to be listened to and accommodated, our day to day political conversation often does not promote that concept to the wider community.

"Too often our approach is to shout down the other view or to seek to degrade the other person's beliefs to maintain our own.

"In the bigger picture we have to ask if this approach moves us forward? Does it help build confidence in this Assembly or our political institutions? Does it help develop the relationships our society needs to move on? Does it set a mature example to our community on the ground? Too often the answer is no."

Parliament Buildings will also be illuminated in red for Remembrance Day in November.

The Speaker added: "There are few acts to which respect is more connected than remembrance. There have been some positive moves forward in recent years but we still have a distance to travel to be united in remembrance."

Next years marks the centenaries of the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme.

"We can just mark these centenaries with inward facing events which will only sustain divisions, or we can reach out and make attempts to understand each other.

"There will have to be uncomfortable conversations but these events do present the opportunity for us all to demonstrate respect for the right to remember even if we do not agree with what is being remembered."

Mr McLaughlin said that we have a society of diverse views and cultures in a constitutional arrangement which will not change unless a majority votes otherwise.

"If you accept and respect that, then what aspiration will be achieved by attempting to promote and strengthen individual cultures by seeking to diminish and degrade others?

"That surely can only create a political dynamic of disrespect and all the negative consequences that will engender."

He acknowledged some will not be receptive to words about respect coming from him.

"There are few of us in this society who will be judged to be blameless. There are plenty of fingers which can be pointed across all sides of the chamber.

"Again, we should have learnt that relying on what we have always done or staying within our own comfort zone, rarely takes us forward. In this society, if we go looking for reasons not to do things we will never have difficulty finding them.

"However, there is always value in trying to do something different even when there is risk.

"Too often we hear the word respect used to advance a cause in one context but not to see that it equally applies when we are opposing something else. Inconsistency is one of our consistencies. I have no doubt that in time, some will come to challenge my application of it.

"I hope my decision to act as president of the assembly branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association lays down a signal of what I am prepared to do but I am clear that respect is a concept which applies to all. No one can have a monopoly on it."

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