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SF Speaker bids to defuse row over National Anthem at service

By Noel McAdam

Assembly Speaker Mitchel McLaughlin has moved to defuse the row at Stormont's Remembrance Service over singing the National Anthem.

Unionist and nationalist politicians took part in the Armistice Day ceremony in Parliament Buildings on Wednesday.

The National Anthem was sung at the end of the event, but had not been on the order of service agreed by the Speaker. Sinn Fein said the singing had been a "childish stunt" while unionists complained that the Anthem had been dropped from the service.

Mr McLaughlin, the first Sinn Fein member to hold the post of Speaker, explained that he changed the style of the commemoration to make it more inclusive.

But he also warned the approach to future joint events in the forthcoming decade of centenaries could end up making them missed opportunities.

In a letter to MLAs, the Speaker said: "I recognise that for many people anthems are part of remembrance but I also know that for many others they are not.

"My door is open to engage with Members and others to listen to any suggestions about how we can reach the same outcome of wide attendance and inclusive participation in the future without some of the tensions which emerged between parties after the event."

The row shows no signs of disappearing, however, with TUV leader Jim Allister - whose press officer Sammy Morrison began singing the National Anthem which was not on the order of service - already tabling written questions over the controversy.

However, Mr McLaughlin (right) made it clear that it was his decision rather than the Assembly Commission, which is responsible for the day to day running of Parliament Buildings, not to include 'God Save the Queen'.

Mr Morrison said, however: "The letter attempts to get away from the core issue that it is hypocritical for Sinn Fein, which still justifies bombing Enniskillen on Remembrance Sunday, to dictate what is or isn't included in an act of remembrance."

Mr McLaughlin added: "How we reflect and commemorate together is a challenge which all of us have to resolve in the coming years. We can design fully separate events which would be missed opportunities or we can work together, to take account of each other's sensitivities and differences to produce shared and inclusive events which would be beneficial to us all."

The Sinn Fein MLA said he had been building on the format of the Act of Remembrance which he led as Principal Deputy Speaker last year - when then Speaker William Hay was absent due to illness - which did not include any music.

"The hosting of a more structured event in the Great Hall put remembrance into the heart of Parliament Buildings in a more visible way," his letter added.

"These steps were all in addition to the initiative agreed by the Assembly Commission to light the building red for Armistice Day, another significant gesture.

"Over this last year I have gained a lot from my engagement with the Royal British Legion, visiting the Somme Heritage Centre and the battlefields of Flanders, as well as participating in a number of First World War commemorations. All these experiences informed my approach to remembrance and made me determined that I would lead remembrance by involving as many people as possible."

In response, Mr Morrison said he had not been able to attend the event last year - the first at which Mr McLaughlin presided.

"At every event I had attended in the past in Stormont the National Anthem was sung. Why was it dropped and with what consultation and agreement?

"It's hard to escape the conclusion that it was dropped in order to accommodate the organisation which blew people up for attending a Remembrance service," he added yesterday.

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