Belfast Telegraph

Alex Kane: Why shouldn't the Queen's portrait hang in the NIO?

Northern Ireland is part of the UK until a majority decide otherwise, so why shouldn't the Queen's portrait hang in the NIO, argues Alex Kane

Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness shakes hands with the Queen in Belfast back in 2012
Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness shakes hands with the Queen in Belfast back in 2012
Alex Kane

By Alex Kane

I'm not a monarchist. I like the idea that everyone who holds office should be both elected and removable from office. I could just as happily live in the United States of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

That said, I have no animus against Her Majesty (the only monarch I have known in my lifetime, as it happens) and acknowledge that she has served her country well. I respect the office.

I respect Queen Elizabeth as the head of state. I stand for the national anthem. I would bow if introduced to her: not in any subservient way, but because I understand the history, symbolism, authority and continuity wrapped up in her role.

Northern Ireland is a member of the United Kingdom and will remain so until a majority of people here vote to end the present constitutional relationship. That's what the 'constitutional guarantee' is all about.

The only way that change can come about is through the border poll provision set out in the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement: an Agreement which leading Sinn Fein politicians have taken to describing as 'our Agreement'. The Agreement acknowledges that Northern Ireland is in the United Kingdom, so it follows, surely, that those who support the Agreement must, whatever their personal political beliefs may be, acknowledge that Queen Elizabeth is the head of state until a border poll decides otherwise?

All nationalist parties which have accepted ministerial office in the NI Executive accept those roles knowing that any Bill they may have steered through various stages in the Assembly must receive Royal Assent before it can become an Act of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

This is a formal process whereby the Queen agrees to make the Bill into an Act.

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Martin McGuinness shook her hand in Belfast, knowing that she was there in her role as head of a state which included Northern Ireland.

She has been feted at events in Dublin attended by members of the Irish Government and broader political establishment; again, when all of the participants acknowledged her status as head of a state that began on the other side of the border.

So, knowing all of that to be true, is there ever a case to be made for 'hiding' - and there really is no other word for it - pictures of the Queen? The Northern Ireland Office has removed all portraits of the Queen from its Belfast headquarters; a decision which appears to date back to the summer of 2017.

NIO minister Lord Duncan, replying to a series of questions from Ulster Unionist peer Lord Rogan, said: 'The NIO takes its responsibilities under fair employment legislation very seriously and seeks to ensure a good and harmonious working environment for all staff.

"In line with the Equality Commission of NI's Guide, Promoting a Good and Harmonious Working Environment, the NIO is sensitive to the display of posters, pictures, portraits or other displays that are more closely associated with one or other of the communities and will consider any concerns raised by employees.

"I can confirm that the department takes steps to ensure no such images are displayed in Stormont House."

The Northern Ireland Office is a branch of the UK government based in Northern Ireland and headed by a member of the Cabinet. That Cabinet is appointed by the Prime Minister, who receives the right to appoint its members when he kisses the Queen's hand and forms 'Her Majesty's Government'.

So it strikes me as odd that someone working in the NIO would be particularly offended by the sight of a portrait of the Queen hanging on a wall or two.

Lord Maginnis recently informed the House of Lords under privilege that a civil servant received £10,000 after he complained that under human rights legislation he should not have to work in an office featuring a picture of the Queen and Prince Philip.

Lord Maginnis added that after the complaint, the photographs were removed and replaced with those of the Queen meeting people on visits to Northern Ireland.

The NIO has yet to confirm or deny this.

Hmm, I wonder how much it would cost to ease the upset of those claiming to be offended by the sight of Lord Carson (which many people have to pass every day on the way to and from the Assembly) and Lord Craigavon (who dominates the Great Hall in Stormont)?

Whether some people like it or not the UK Government remains ultimately responsible for Northern Ireland: and, as I have noted, until a border poll decides otherwise the Queen (or her successor) is head of state.

Hiding her photographs and portraits won't make a difference to that reality. Finding ways to shield some people from offence won't make a difference to that reality.

I understand the particular difficulties embedded in Northern Ireland's political differences and constitutional preferences, but that still doesn't justify the removal of portraits of the head of state from a building which is under the control of ministers from the United Kingdom's Government: in place to govern in the broader interests of the UK.

There's another question worth considering: how threatened can any individual be by the sight of the portrait of the Queen in a building which represents a very specific 'British presence' in Northern Ireland? That presence is provided for in the Good Friday Agreement. The role of the Secretary of State is recognised in the Good Friday Agreement.

The Secretary of State, in the role as the member of 'Her Majesty's Government' with specific responsibility for Northern Ireland fields questions in Parliament on decisions made and policy for Northern Ireland - particularly in the absence of a functioning Assembly and Executive.

Does 'impartiality' for NIO ministers now mean that even an image of the head of state is deemed unacceptable?

I can understand and do have some sympathy for the argument that what might be described as 'political symbols' have been used - and by both sides - as a form of triumphalism.

And I have heard complaints from both nationalists and unionists that they believe that 'certain symbolism' is being used to convey a particular and unwelcoming message to them.

But I genuinely don't believe that portraits of the Queen in what is, to all intents and purposes, the base of the British government's representation in Northern Ireland, falls into that category.

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