On a visit to see family in N.Ireland we were so lucky to be treated to our very own guided tour of Parliament Buildings at Stormont in Belfast, known to locals as “the house on the hill.” This is home to the Northern Ireland Assembly and where laws and all things relating to the governing of the province takes place. One of our family friends works there, had often invited us to visit as his guest but until this break we hadn’t managed to co-ordinate dates. This time everything fell into place.
Public tours of the building run regularly and are free, however on our visit we got to see everything the public tour normally covers but just a little bit extra as well.
The building is so impressive. It was built in 1921 to house the newly formed government of Northern Ireland and although I had been in the grounds of the estate in the past I’d never made it inside. We admired the statue of Lord Carson on the drive – a most dramatic pose.
We arrived in good time for our appointment and got to drive right up to the building and park close to the entrance. On an icy cold day we were quite pleased we didn’t need to walk up the avenue from the main gates – it is exactly one mile long.
A quick security search and then we got to approach the impressive entrance with its six pillars representing the number of counties in Northern Ireland, there are also six floors in the building.
Into the Great Hall and Son was very excited to see our names on the notice board as guests for the day. Tea and coffee were very welcome, then we had our own personal tour guide who took us around the building. Our friend had come to greet us but needed to dash back to the Chamber as he was speaking at that time on a Bill.
The Great Hall is very impressive and somewhere I could have sat for a very long time – there is plenty to look at and take stock. It is richly decorated with an incredible ceiling, untouched since it was first painted in 1932 thanks to a secret waxing process. A stunning gold plated chandelier hangs in pride of place – a gift from King George V. It originally hung in Windsor Castle and had been a gift from Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. It was removed and placed in storage during World War 1 and was never hung in Windsor again.
As well as being a beautiful place to sit, there was a lot of coming and going and much hustle and bustle in the Great Hall. Journalists, television cameras, politicians and lots of famous faces were rushing about. We enjoyed all this drama and could have watched that for longer too.
Our guide took us into the Assembly Chamber while a debate was underway. We sat quietly in the gallery and listened. No great orators here though and it was, dare I say, rather boring. Apparently this is the norm, the coalition agreement in Northern Ireland means only one person can speak at a time, totally unlike the process at Westminster and nowhere near as thrilling.
We met our friend for lunch and while dining were surrounded by many more famous faces. He took us into the Senate to have a look at this very grand room with red leather seats and two blocks of benches. Beautiful old Irish damask lines the wall and we got a close up look at the two paintings, one showing the state opening of the parliament in 1921 and the other is a group portrait of the first assembly after the 1998 elections.
We were on our way to the Ministers’ tea room when we bumped into the then First Minister Arlene Foster (an election is pending in the province). She was on her way out but our friend called her back to chat and asked if we could take a few pictures. She was very gracious, invited us into her office and chatted for quite a while. Son was very taken with her and is very proud of his photo souvenir of the day.
Tea and biscuits in the gorgeous old tea room then we left after a fascinating, fun and definitely memorable day.