Gathering dust in a storage unit on the outskirts of Belfast, a treasure trove of historical artefacts integral to Northern Ireland’s history lies hidden from public view.
Few would guess from the building’s nondescript facade that it houses such impressive items as a £7,000 gilded throne, or the table where the Act of Union may have been signed.
The items were placed in storage in the late 1990s while Parliament Buildings was undergoing a major refurbishment, and ran up storage fees of £76,715.81 between 2011 and November 2017 alone.
Standing in a small room surrounded by an Aladdin’s cave of portraits, ceremonial uniforms and ornamental clocks worth thousands of pounds, TUV leader Jim Allister, who began enquiring about the artefacts in 2012, says it is an “absolute shame” that the items are hidden away.
Last year, in response to a question from Mr Allister, the Assembly revealed that 32 of its artefacts valued at £45,000 are in off-site storage.
“These belong to the public, and yet the public are paying money through the Assembly to keep them in storage, so they can’t see them,” he said.
“It costs something like £13,000 a year to keep them in a warehouse.
“It’s a scandal, an absolute shame — this is part of our history.
“There are portraits of the first Prime Minister Lord Craigavon in ceremonial uniform, the Second Prime Minister JM Andrews, the wig of the first Stormont Speaker Hugh O’Neill, the bell stand for the bell from HMS Ulster.
“All sorts of items of historical significance, yet they are hidden away.
“You’re looking at a collection which is in some senses priceless, of historic memorabilia which belongs to the public and yet has been hidden away from the public.”
In the corner of a large room upstairs, growing discoloured, sits a bronze relief map of Northern Ireland, presented by the Right Honourable J Milne Barber in 1934.
Beside it, gathering spider-webs, is an architectural model of Stormont.
And sitting forlornly at the end of the room is the table on which the Act of Union may have been signed in 1800, and which was once displayed in Stormont’s Great Hall.
“I was a member of the Stormont Assembly from 1982-86, and I remember a lot of these items on display and in the Great Hall,” Mr Allister said.
“I went back in 2011 and thought, ‘Where did all that stuff go?’
“I started making enquiries and it’s taken from then to now to get to see them.
“I think somebody thought, ‘We’d better sanitise this place.’
“It has a whiff of political correctness to me, I think because of the unionist connotations”.
Mr Allister is now calling on the Assembly Commission to put the items on public display at Stormont.
“I believe it could be a great tourist attraction, and school groups who come to Stormont would be fascinated by items such as this,” he said.
“It would really enhance the visitor experience — why aren’t we making use of an asset?
“If we’re paying for it to be here, why not put it in Stormont instead, which has lots of empty rooms?
“Let these items be put on display, and their historic significance appreciated.
“My call to the Assembly Commission is to wake up to what they have here, let’s have an exhibition room, let’s have it on display and let’s make the most of it, rather than paying to hide it away.
“If it didn’t go to Stormont, and I think it should, there are many museums which I’m sure would be happy to take some of it on loan and exhibit it.
“Hopefully today will be the start of a process that will get it out for people to see.”
An Assembly spokesperson said: “While a small number of the artefacts and artwork held by the Assembly Commission are currently in off-site storage, most are either on permanent public display, displayed in other parts of Parliament Buildings or on long term loan to other locations.
“Once the Assembly appoints a new Commission, it will be open to it to consider the merits of an exhibition of artwork in Parliament Buildings.”