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Pictures row rekindles memories of City Hall sectarianism

By Lesley-Anne Henry

Warnings have been made of turbulent times ahead at Belfast City Hall after the Lord Mayor removed Royal portraits.

As revealed by the Belfast Telegraph yesterday, Sinn Fein’s Niall O’Donnghaile has taken down two paintings of the Queen Mother and Prince Charles from the Mayor’s parlour and replaced photographs of the Queen and Prince Philip with a framed copy of the 1916 Irish Proclamation and a portrait of the United Irishmen.

The controversial move is part of a wider Sinn Fein strategy to redress what it sees as an “imbalance” of unionist trappings and comes on the back of a republican request for an equality impact assessment into memorabilia in the City Hall coupled with calls for a review of the council’s flag-flying policy.

Unionists, who are now in the minority, have expressed concern that sectarianism is creeping back into the council chamber in a throwback to the notorious ‘Dome of Delight’ days of the 1980s.

“I have been on record twice in the last six months as saying this is going to be an extremely difficult council and I fear we are not going to deliver for our ratepayers,” said longstanding UUP man and twice Lord Mayor Jim Rodgers.

“I am not surprised but I am bitterly disappointed by what has happened. It is rather sad. I think what this shows is that to be Lord Mayor you need to have experience of being an elected representative and of sitting on the council’s committees.”

During his three weeks in office Mayor O’Donnghaile has visited the loyalist Shankill Road, the Presbyterian Assembly and last night the 26-year-old former Press officer attended a graduation ceremony for the Belfast Bible School at St Anne’s Cathedral. However, his decision to erect a copy of the Irish Proclamation of Independence, which usually takes pride of place in Sinn Fein offices, has led to depressing predictions that the council will once again be split down traditional green and orange lines.

Progressive Unionist Party representative and councillor of 38 years’ experience, Hugh Smyth, said it was a backward step.

“It doesn’t augur well for where we want to be,” he added.

“People are really shocked and upset by the whole thing. The people are very angry for, on the one hand, you have a Lord Mayor who says he wants to be a Lord Mayor for all, while on the other hand he is hurting the people of the Shankill by these actions.

“People are not saying he has no right to put up the stuff that he wants up, but surely there’s plenty of room that he wouldn’t have to take down Royal photographs.”

The council’s strategic policy and resources committee is due to decide next week whether to appoint an independent consultant to look at the amount of memorabilia in the City Hall.

At present the Union flag flies over the building 365 days a year, however, Sinn Fein has written to the chief executive to formally request that the council look again at it’s policy.

“I have seen what has happened in the parlour and, putting it frankly, I was shocked,” DUP deputy Lord Mayor Ruth Patterson said. “I think it’s disrespectful and non-inclusive. Sinn Fein are very good at talking the talk, but walking the walk is an entirely different matter.

“They are very good at portraying themselves as inclusive and extending the hand and all of that. But the reality is that leopards never change their spots and people out there need to be very mindful of that.

“I think people are anxious and concerned, but we’ll see what happens. I certainly wouldn’t like to see any of the flags or items removed from the rotunda in City Hall because those are items that have been presented to the council and items that have been moved and removed from the parlour. It’s sad.”

Meanwhile, at a Press conference in the Mayor’s parlour yesterday, Mr O’Donnghaile defended his decision to take down the portraits. “When I entered two weeks ago there were four portraits of various members of the British Royal family up around nine spaces in the parlour, so obviously that was quite unrepresentative and unbalanced in relation to the make-up of this city,” he said.

“I have begun a process to try and make this place a bit more representative and more reflective for us as a whole.

“From the beginning I made clear I wanted to me a Mayor for all of the citizens so that’s why I appreciate and recognise there are people with an affinity to the British Royal family. I kept the Queen and her husband in the parlour.

“I thought given the fact that for many in this city the Queen is viewed as their Head of State it was important that that was reflected in the parlour. On a personal level, that’s quite a tough decision for me.

“Her husband is in full military regalia in the portrait. So, that is difficult and will be difficult, I am sure, for people entering the parlour.”

The Mayor also said he had left wall space for imagery reflecting the culture of ethnic minorities in Belfast.

Parlour games that have sparked squabble or two

It’s just a little room but the Lord Mayor’s parlour in Belfast City Hall has had a long and colourful history.

The opulent office on the first floor of the magnificent Edwardian building is used to host visiting dignitaries and civic receptions but, in this divided city, it has frequently been the focus of controversy.

If the walls could talk they could recount many a row over flags, emblems and the differing loyalties of the various First Citizens.

When the unionists dominated the ‘Dome of Delight’ the parlour was full of military memorabilia and imagery reflecting the British Empire. Four portraits of members of the Royal family adorned the walls and a Union flag was hung against a fireplace.

It wasn’t until 2002 when republicans took the mayoral chain that things changed.

In that year Sinn Fein’s Alex Maskey caused a furore when he unfurled an Irish tricolour and placed it beside the Union Flag at one end of the room.

A year later Martin Morgan hung an Irish language poem about a blackbird on the wall. It is still there.

And in 2008 Sinn Fein’s Tom Hartley said he had been “unfazed” by the unionist opposition to rehanging the tricolour in the parlour.

However, according to the city’s longest serving councillor, nothing has created as big a stir as this latest move of actually taking down Royal portraits.

Niall O’Donnghaile says he wants to be a Mayor for all traditions but Hugh Smyth of the PUP said his actions are being viewed as a snub to the unionist tradition in working class areas.

Mr Smyth said: “People are not saying the Mayor has no right to put up the stuff that he wants up, but surely there’s plenty of room that he wouldn’t have had to take down Royal photographs.”

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