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Opening of NI parliament by King is marked 100 years later

Belfast City Hall, scene of historic speech by George V, is hosting special centenary event


The front bench at the first informal meeting of the parliament on June 7, 1921. Credit: Belfast Telegraph

The front bench at the first informal meeting of the parliament on June 7, 1921. Credit: Belfast Telegraph

Eamon Phoenix. Credit: Remember the future

Eamon Phoenix. Credit: Remember the future


The front bench at the first informal meeting of the parliament on June 7, 1921. Credit: Belfast Telegraph

Belfast City Council will today commemorate the 100th anniversary of Northern Ireland’s first parliament.

An event marking a century to the day since King George V opened parliament at Belfast City Hall will be broadcast live on Tuesday evening from the building.

The King’s Speech will feature a reading of the words of the King, who travelled for the opening despite a significant risk to his life in a bid to bring peace to Ireland amid the War of Independence.

Political historian Dr Eamon Phoenix is to give a talk on the period, and described the irony of the commemoration occurring at a time of unionist turmoil.

“There was a great deal of polarisation in 1921, where nationalists felt the losers in all of this,” he said.

“Fast-forward 100 years and the events to mark the centenary are much more low-key than originally planned — remember Arlene Foster talking about ‘baby boxes’ to mark the event and the potential for a royal visit.

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“A number of things have happened. We have Covid-19, we have the turmoil within unionism over Brexit and leaving the European Union, the split in the DUP.

“As we have approached the anniversary, the headlines have been about the various factions of the DUP, while there has also been a demographic shift over the last 50 years.

“We used to talk about the nationalist minority. We certainly did as I was growing up, and that is no longer the case, while everyone knows Brexit has had an impact on identity.

“Who would have thought, 100 years ago, as James Craig stood in City Hall at the opening of parliament that unionists would go on to fail to even get a centenary stone at Stormont because Sinn Fein said ‘no’?”

In addition to the talk by Dr Phoenix, a play centred on the King’s speech, developed by Terra Nova Productions in partnership with young people from across the city, will be performed for the first time.

Two chairs used by King George V and Queen Mary during their visit have undergone conservation work and will be unveiled during the event.

The council has also been working with school children to create a time capsule.

It will be stored at City Hall and opened in 2121.

Meanwhile, Stormont will be lit up in blue on Tuesday night to mark the centenary.

TUV leader Jim Allister said: “I am pleased that my application to have Stormont illuminated on Tuesday night to mark the centenary of the official opening of the first Northern Ireland parliament by King George V has been approved.

“The building will be floodlit in blue from sunset to celebrate this significant anniversary.

“A century ago Northern Ireland was making plans to welcome our monarch with ‘unparalleled scenes of enthusiasm’, as Major Shillington put it when describing the scenes in an address to the Northern Ireland House of Commons on June 23, 1921. Obviously Covid restrictions have curtailed what should otherwise have been large celebrations this year.

“However, the reluctance of the powers that be, at the behest of Sinn Fein, to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland in any official way, such as by a visit by Her Majesty the Queen to address the Assembly, is telling and has fed growing unionist frustration in the last few months.

“Though it is a poor substitute, at least the centenary will be marked in this small way after my successful application.”

June 22, 1921 was the day that the Government of Ireland Act, effectively partitioning Ireland and establishing a new devolved government in the newly formed Northern Ireland, came into practical effect.

It was a day of celebration for Sir James Craig, the Prime Minister-designate, and his unionist supporters. Not so for the nationalist people of the new six county state.

In coming to Northern Ireland to deliver his speech, King George V was putting his life and the safety of his wife at risk, and prior to returning to London he told Craig: “I can’t tell you how glad I am I came, but you know my entourage were very much against it.”

According to Dr Phoenix, the King was determined to broker peace and help bring an end to the bloodshed, while the IRA held off on an attack “because they wanted to hear what the King had to say”.

King George V told the assembled politicians: “I pray that my coming to Ireland today might prove to be the first step towards the end of strife amongst her people, whatever their race or creed.

"In that hope I appeal to all Irishmen to pause, to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and forget, and to join in making for the land they love a new era of peace, contentment and goodwill.”

While he described his hopes for peace, two days later the IRA blew up a train carrying 113 soldiers, over 100 horses and four officers of the King’s mounted escort, the 10th Royal Hussars.

The explosion happened near Adavoyle Station, south of Newry, resulting in the deaths of a railway guard, three soldiers and 50 horses.

The attack did not derail parliament, however, which sat for its first time at Belfast City Hall before moving to the Presbyterian Church’s Assembly College, where it remained for the next 10 years.

It subsequently moved to the new purpose-built Parliament Buildings, where it sat until 1972 when it was prorogued amid the rising tide of violence at the time.

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