MLAs elected to the first Assembly tell the Belfast Telegraph about getting a rose from Martin McGuinness and an embarrassing encounter with a president
They are Stormont’s gang of seven. MLAs elected to the first Assembly in 1998 who have stayed the course and survived elections.
Sinn Fein’s Alex Maskey and Gerry Kelly, the Ulster Unionists’ Roy Beggs, and the DUP’s Edwin Poots, Jim Wells, David Hilditch and Peter Weir — although he was originally on a UUP ticket — were returned to Parliament Buildings a month after the Good Friday Agreement referendum.
Maskey (69), who was elected Speaker last year, has announced he won’t be standing in the next election, so it will a gang of six, or perhaps fewer, come May next year.
The current Assembly has significant differences to the first one, Weir says.
“At 29, I was one of its younger members. Most of the big beasts at Westminster were also in Stormont,” he adds.
“Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson, John Hume and Gerry Adams, although he didn’t take his seat, were there. It made for a very different atmosphere to what you have now.
“While there’s certainly not a cosy relationship between unionists and Sinn Fein today, the formal barriers have come down a fair bit.
“In 1998, there was no discourse between both groups.”
Weir recalls one incident in 2000 when then Sinn Fein Education Minister Martin McGuinness attempted to break the ice with him.
“I was in a lift and he got in. It was St Valentine’s Day and he had a red rose that he was clearly taking home to his wife. He made a gesture of giving it to me,” the DUP MLA says.
“There’s been a thawing across the board since then. I wouldn’t say there’s much bonhomie, given our histories, but we treat each other with respect.”
The sense that power-sharing could come crashing down remains. Weir says: “There was instability at Stormont in 1998 — a feeling that you’re six months away from the next crisis — and that’s still the case.”
He views UK Unionist Bob McCartney and former DUP leader Peter Robinson as the best orators he’s heard.
Weir says the Assembly is at its best on occasions when MLAs are leaving: “Those valedictory remarks, and other members paying tribute to the person going, are the finest occasions I can recall.
“I’m thinking of Doc’s last speech and Arlene’s departure — times when the cut and thrust of politics is put aside and members are at their most generous.”
DUP MLA Jim Wells describes himself as “the grandfather of the house”.
He says while he is fortunate that his South Down seat has always been a relatively safe one, there has never been a year without a crisis.
“It’s been very volatile. Three times I’ve written to staff to give them their notice, and three times I’ve been able to ring them up and tell them to put it in the bin,” he adds.
“I think there have been five suspensions. You never knew from one week to the next where you were going.
“It’s quite unsettling. You need quite a good stomach. I’m fortunate that despite [it] all, I’m still here.”
Wells recalls the ‘brawl in the hall’ when there was pushing, shoving and name-calling by some MLAs after David Trimble was re-elected as First Minister in 2001.
He was present when Michael Stone arrived at the building in November 2006, armed with explosives and an axe, in an attempt to murder Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.
He also remembers a visit by ex-US President Bill Clinton.
“He arrived in the middle of the Monica Lewinsky scandal,” Wells says.
“We were lined up in the Long Gallery to meet him and number five on the list was Monica McWilliams, the leader of the Women’s Coalition.
“The American ambassador was going down the line doing the introductions. He came to Monica and he said, ‘This is Monica Lew...’ He had the right Christian name. He was going to say it but eventually he blurted out Monica McBride.
“Monica McWilliams said, ‘That’s right’, that’s right’. You could see in his face. He had come 5,000 miles and the first woman he’s introduced to was called Monica.”
Roy Beggs was 35 years old when he was “thrilled to be elected” East Antrim MLA. “There was a high level of uncertainty,” he recalls. “No one knew if the Stormont institutions would survive.
“The fact that some Sinn Fein MLAs had previous involvement in terrorism meant there was caution about interacting with them. Many unionists felt uncomfortable.
“I remember at one committee meeting, the DUP chair refused to directly address the Sinn Fein members.
“In order for the committee proceedings to progress, he said members could pose questions in a clockwise direction.”
Beggs’ favourite memories are of attending garden parties for the Royal Family. “
“In an attempt to foster democracy by making MLAs feel important, we were invited to these events,” he says. “I felt honoured to be there.”
He praises the contributions in the chamber of two former colleagues in particular: “David Trimble was very eloquent and spoke with authority. I was also impressed with Ian Adamson’s knowledge of history and his linguistic contributions. There’d be a bit of Welsh and Ulster-Scots.
“I was amazed that he had knowledge of so many languages, even though they were relatively obscure.
“The politician from across the divide I enjoyed chatting to most was the SDLP’s John Dallat who died last year. We served on the Public Accounts Committee together.”
Beggs’ most stressful times came when he was told his life could be at risk.
“The first threat was when the police advised there was going to be a hit by loyalists on a UUP MLA prior to an Assembly vote in 1999,” he says.
“Then several years later, I was told my name was on a republican target list that had been recovered.”
Edwin Poots, who had been a full-time farmer, never anticipated progressing beyond being a councillor, so arriving at Stormont in 1998 — “the building that it is and the history associated with it” — was a “powerful” experience.
“It was not somewhere where I ever expected to be. Now being there for 23 years, it’s all the more surprising,” he says.
The mood was tense during the Assembly’s first year: “In 1998, things were still raw. The Omagh bombing happened that year. The Manchester bombing had taken place in 1996. Billy Wright had been murdered in prison in 1997.
“So, there was still a far bit of rawness in terms of relationships. A lot of people elected for Sinn Fein ... had a history of involvement in the IRA and the Troubles.
“Relationships were strained, poor and difficult. That has something that probably has moderated over time. It was difficult and, in many ways, it still is.”
But Poots stresses that it wasn’t all doom and gloom: “There has been lots of fun and craic in at all. In the early days, I would have been one of the younger members asking questions and challenging the then First Minister David Trimble, Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon and others.
“I always enjoyed that combative element in the chamber. There’s been plenty of fun and plenty of sharp remarks made. We’ve been able to have a chuckle to ourselves.
“Stormont is a bit like a marriage: you can’t deal with your marriage partner, and you can’t deal without them.”