The Northern Ireland Assembly Commission is pleased to present...

Parliament Buildings - A Journey of People, Politics and Peacebuilding

A century of history in art and artefacts reflecting on key figures and events of parliamentary and political history since the creation of Northern Ireland / partition of Ireland in 1921. 

You do not need to be part of a tour to come to Parliament Buildings to view the exhibition. The building is open to the public from 9:00am to 4:00pm each weekday exluding public and bank holidays.

Political History on Display in New Exhibition

The Northern Ireland Assembly Commission is pleased to present, Parliament Buildings "A Journey of People, Politics and Peacebuilding'.

The items on display in Parliament Buildings reflect on key figures and events of parliamentary and political history since the creation of Northern Ireland/partition of Ireland in 1921.

Parliament Buildings has housed a number of different elected bodies since 1932, and has become the setting for many important events during a period which has seen much turmoil and disagreement, violence and tragedy. However, despite many bleak moments over the years, Parliament Buildings has also been the setting for significant efforts to build a peaceful and cohesive future for all in this society.

The items and images on display in Parliament Buildings reflect on a complex history, highlighting some of the significant events that have occurred over the years. Whether you are interested in the history of this building or our political process, we hope you enjoy this short synopsis on the life of Parliament Buildings from 1921 to the present day.

The exhibition has been split into 6 zones. You can scroll through this page to view the portraits, images and other items on display or use the links below to go to a specific zone.


Zone 1 - Great Hall - First Ministers, deputy First Ministers and Speakers of the Assembly 

First and deputy First Ministers

David Trimble, Lord Trimble of Lisnagarvey, First Minister, 1998-2002

Born in Bangor, County Down in 1944, Lord Trimble was elected to the House of Commons in London in 1990, representing Upper Bann. 

In 1995, he was elected as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and led the party into the negotiations which resulted in the Good Friday/ Belfast Agreement.

 In 1998, he was elected as a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly for Upper Bann, and was appointed as the First Minister in the new Northern Ireland Assembly.  In 2006 he was made a life peer.

Seamus Mallon, deputy First Minister, 1998-2001

Born in Markethill in 1936, Seamus Mallon was a school principal when he was elected to the first power-sharing Northern Ireland Assembly in 1973, representing Armagh.  

A Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) politician, he would also be elected as a Member of Parliament in the House of Commons in London between 1986 and 2005.

Following the Good Friday/ Belfast Agreement, he was elected as a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly for Newry and Armagh and appointed as the first deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland.

Ian Paisley, Lord Bannside
First Minister, 2007-2008 

Born in Armagh in 1926, the son of a Baptist pastor, Ian Paisley became a Protestant clergyman and Moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church, which he founded in 1951. He was elected to the Northern Ireland House of Commons in 1970 as a Member of Parliament (MP) for Bannside.  In the same year he was also elected as the MP for North Antrim in the British House of Commons, a seat he would hold for 40 years.  

Ian Paisley was the founder of the Democratic Unionist Party, acting as the Party’s leader between 1971 and 2008. 

In 1998, he was elected as a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly for North Antrim, and served as First Minister of Northern Ireland between 2007 and 2008.

In 2010, he was elevated to the House of Lords as Baron Bannside.

Martin McGuinness, deputy First Minister, 2007-2017

Born in Derry/Londonderry in 1950, Martin McGuinness was one of the first Sinn Féin Members elected in modern times to the 1982 Northern Ireland Assembly, although he did not take his seat. 

He was also elected as a Member of Parliament to the British House of Commons in 1997, but again adhered to his Party’s policy of abstentionism.

He served as Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator in the multi-party talks of 1997-1998 which led to the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. Following the Agreement, he was elected as a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly and became the first Minister of Education in the Northern Ireland Executive (1999-2002).

Between 2007 and 2017, Martin McGuinness served as deputy First Minister.

Mark Durkan, deputy First Minister, 2001-2002

Born in Derry/Londonderry in 1960, Mark Durkan was elected as a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly for Foyle in 1998. He became the first Finance Minister in the Executive which formed following the Good Friday/ Belfast Agreement.

He served as leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party between 2001 and 2010.

He served as deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland between 2001 and 2002. 

He was later elected as a Member of Parliament in the British House of Commons between 2005 and 2017. 

Peter Robinson, First Minister, 2008-2016

Born in Belfast in 1948, Peter Robinson was elected as a Member of Parliament (MP) for East Belfast in 1979. He held his seat until 2012, making him the longest-serving Belfast MP since the 1800 Act of Union. 

Peter Robinson was a founding member of the Democratic Unionist Party along with Reverend Ian Paisley. In 1980, he was deputy leader of the party before serving as leader between 2008 and 2015.

In 1998, he was elected as a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly for East Belfast, subsequently serving as Minister for Regional Development (1999-2000; 2001-2002) and Minister of Finance and Personnel (2007-2008).  He served as First Minister between June 2008 and January 2016.

Arlene Foster, First Minister, 2016 – 2017 and 2020 – 2021

Born in Enniskillen in 1970, Arlene Foster was elected as a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly for Fermanagh and South Tyrone between 2003 and 2021. She served as Minister of the Environment (2007-2008); Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (2008-2015); and Minister for Finance and Personnel (2015-2016).

As a member of the Democratic Unionist Party she also served as Party leader between 2015 and 2021.

In January 2016, she was appointed as First Minister. She was the first woman to hold this position and remained in the post until 2021.

Michelle O'Neill, deputy First Minister, 2020-2021

Born in Fermoy, County Cork in 1977, Michelle O’Neill was elected as a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly for Mid Ulster in 2007. She served as Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development between 2011 and 2016, and Minister of Health between 2016 and 2017.

In 2018, she became Vice-President of Sinn Féin. 

In January 2020, she was appointed deputy First Minister after the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ Deal restored the power-sharing Executive, becoming the first woman to hold this position.

Paul Givan, First Minister, 2021-2022

Born in Lisburn in 1981, Paul Givan became a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly for Lagan Valley in 2010.

He previously served as a Councillor on Lisburn City Council between 2005 and 2013, representing the Democratic Unionist Party.

In 2016, he was appointed Minister for Communities and held this position until the collapse of the Assembly in 2017. 

In June 2021, Paul Givan was appointed First Minister, holding this position until February 2022.

The Speakers of the Northern Ireland Assembly

John Alderdice, Lord Alderdice of Knock Speaker, 1998-2004 

Born in Ballymena in 1955, Lord Alderdice was a consultant psychiatrist by profession.  He was elected as a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly for East Belfast between 1998 and 2003, representing the Alliance Party. He later served as leader of the Party for more than a decade (1987-1998). 

Lord Alderdice was appointed as the first Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly following the Good Friday/ Belfast Agreement, holding this position until 2004. 

Eileen Bell CBE,
Speaker, 2006-2007

Born in Dromara, County Down in 1943, Eileen Bell was elected as a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly (MLA) for North Down between 1998 and 2007. 

An Alliance MLA, she was a former General Secretary of the Party and also served as the Party’s deputy leader between 2001 and 2005. 

 In 2006, Eileen Bell was appointed Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, becoming the first woman in Northern Ireland’s history to hold this position.  She played a crucial role in putting arrangements in place for the return of devolution in 2007.  

William Hay, Lord Hay of Ballyore
Speaker, 2007-2014 

Born in Milford, County Donegal in 1950, William Hay was elected as a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly (MLA) for Foyle between 1998 and 2014. 

A Democratic Unionist Party MLA, he had also served as Mayor of Derry/Londonderry between 1992 and 1993. 

In 2007, he became the first Speaker to be elected by the Northern Ireland Assembly itself, holding this position for seven years. 

In 2014, he was elevated to the House of Lords as Lord Hay of Ballyore. 

 

Mitchel McLaughlin
Speaker, 2015-2016

Born in Derry/ Londonderry in 1945, Mitchel McLaughlin was a former of Chairperson of Sinn Féin and was elected as a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly for Foyle in 1998. 

In 2015, he was elected as Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, becoming the first Nationalist politician in Northern Ireland’s history to hold the position. He held this position until 2016, when he stepped down from the Assembly.

Robin Newton MBE
Speaker, 2016-2020

Born in Belfast in 1945, Robin Newton was elected as a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly for East Belfast in 2003.

He had previously served on Belfast City Council following his appointment as Councillor in 1985, representing the Democratic Unionist Party.

Between 2009 and 2011, he served as Junior Minister in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

 

Alex Maskey
Speaker, 2020 – 

Born in Belfast in 1952, Alex Maskey became the first member of Sinn Féin to sit as a Councillor on Belfast City Council in 1983. In 2002, he became the first Sinn Féin Mayor of Belfast. 

He was elected to the Northern Ireland Peace Forum for Belfast West in 1996. However, he did not attend due to Sinn Féin policy. 

In 1998, he was elected as a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly (MLA) for Belfast West, a seat which he represented until 2003. He was then elected as an MLA for Belfast South (2003-2014) before returning to represent Belfast West (2014-2022). 

In January 2020, he was elected Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

 


Zone 2 - The Northern Ireland Parliament, 1921 to 1960s

The Northern Ireland Parliament was officially opened by King George V on 22 June 1921. The visit occurred against a backdrop of public disorder and violence and the King's speech focused on the need for reconciliation.

The Origins of a Parliament in Belfast

From the late 1800s, tensions between those who wished to maintain Ireland’s union with Britain (unionists and loyalists) and those who wanted Ireland to become an independent nation (nationalists and republicans) intensified, becoming a source of violence and disorder. 

 In an attempt to manage these political differences, the implementation of Home Rule – self-government for Ireland rather than being governed directly by London - was considered.  However, the concept of Home Rule became a major political issue, with strongly opposing views being held in different parts of the island of Ireland. 

Just before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the intention of the Westminster Parliament to introduce ‘Home Rule’ was clear, but it was also proposed that the province of Ulster in the north of Ireland would not be included.      

The Government led by Prime Minister David Lloyd George introduced the Government of Ireland Act 1920.  This created two ‘Home Rule’ parliaments, one in Southern Ireland and one in Northern Ireland.

By this time political divisions had worsened. In 1916, there was an armed rebellion against British Rule in Ireland known as the Easter Rising.  In 1918, the republican party, Sinn Féin, campaigned for an ‘independent sovereign Ireland’ and won 73 of the 105 Irish parliamentary seats in the election to the Westminster Parliament. 

However, when the vote on the Government of Ireland Act was called, every Ulster Unionist Member of Parliament at Westminster abstained. They wanted Ulster to remain within the United Kingdom and be governed directly from London but accepted a northern parliament as the next best option. However, they advocated for the Northern Ireland Parliament to include only six of the nine counties in Ulster where Unionist support was greatest.         

     

Picture: Cartoon of David Lloyd George (Courtesy of Punch Cartoon Library/  Top Foto)

Excerpt from King George V’s Speech

The Northern Ireland Parliament was officially opened by King George V on 22 June 1921. The visit occurred against a backdrop of public disorder and violence and the King's speech focused on the need for reconciliation.


 “I speak from a full heart when I pray that my coming to Ireland to-day may prove to be the first step towards an end of strife amongst her people, whatever their race or creed. In that hope, I appeal to all Irishmen to pause, to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and to forget, and to join in making for the land which they love a new era of peace, contentment, and goodwill.”

Procession to Belfast City Hall for the opening of the Northern Ireland Parliament by King George V on 22 June 1921.

First Northern Ireland Parliament

On 7 June 1921, the Northern Ireland House of Commons met for the first time in Belfast City Hall. 

The Ulster Unionist Party had won more than three-quarters of the seats in the Parliament, while Sinn Féin and the Nationalist Party won six seats each. However, neither Sinn Féin nor the Nationalists took their seats.

As the Parliament had no staff, officials were obtained from Westminster on a temporary basis to establish the new House of Commons.

First Northern Ireland Cabinet

The first government of Northern Ireland was created on 7 June 1921, with Sir James Craig being formally invited to form a government under the Government of Ireland Act 1920.

Seven new government departments were established, with Ministers being appointed as follows:

  • Prime Minister – James Craig
  • Minister of Finance – Hugh McDowell Pollock 
  • Minister of Home Affairs - Richard Dawson Bates
  • Minister of Education - Charles Vane-Tempest-Stewart
  • Minister of Agriculture and Commerce - Edward Archdale 
  • Minister of Labour - John Millar Andrews

The Six Prime Ministers of Northern Ireland

James Craig, Lord Craigavon (1871-1940)

First Prime Minister in the Northern Ireland Parliament. Born in Belfast in 1871, James Craig - later known as Lord Craigavon - was the son of a wealthy distiller. He began his political career when he was elected to the House of Commons in London as a Member of Parliament for East Down.

In March 1921, he succeeded Sir Edward Carson as the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and became the first Prime Minister in the newly created Northern Ireland Parliament. He held this position for 19 years, until his death in 1940. 

John Millar (JM) Andrews (1871-1956)

Born in Comber in 1871, JM Andrews spent much of his early life running the family flax-spinning mill.  Elected as a Member of Parliament (MP) to the Northern Ireland House of Commons in 1921 representing County Down, he was also appointed to Northern Ireland’s first Cabinet as Minister of Labour.

In 1940, JM Andrews became leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and the second Prime Minister of Northern Ireland at the height of the Second World War. He resigned as Prime Minister in 1943.

 

Sir Basil Brooke, Lord Brookeborough (1888-1973)

Born into a landed gentry family in County Fermanagh in 1888, Sir Basil Brooke served in the First World War and helped to found the Ulster Special Constabulary at partition. His political career began when he was elected to the Northern Ireland Senate in 1921.

In 1943, he was appointed leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and Prime Minister of Northern Ireland.  Sir Basil Brooke resigned as Prime Minister in 1963.

Terence O’Neill, Lord O’Neill of Maine (1914-1990)

Born in London in 1914, Terence O’Neill was elected to the Northern Ireland House of Commons in 1946 as a Member of Parliament for Bannside. In 1963, he was appointed leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. 

During his time as Prime Minister, Terence O’Neill sought to improve cross-border relations and invited the Irish Taoiseach, Seán Lemass, to Belfast for a historic meeting in January 1965. Following the rise of the Civil Rights movement, Terence O’Neill resigned as Prime Minister and leader of the UUP in April 1969.

 

James Chichester-Clark, Lord Moyola (1923-2002)

James Chichester-Clark first held political office in 1960 when he was elected to the Northern Ireland House of Commons as a Member of Parliament for South Londonderry. The seat had previously been held by both his grandmother – Dame Dehra Parker – and his father – James Lenox-Conyngham Chichester-Clark.

In 1969, the Ulster Unionist Party held its first ever election to appoint its new leader, James Chichester-Clark, who also became Prime Minister. 

James Chichester-Clark resigned as Prime Minister in 1971. 

 

Brian Faulkner, Lord Faulkner of Downpatrick (1921-1977)

Born in Helens Bay in 1921, the son of a Belfast shirt manufacturer, Brian Faulkner was elected to the Northern Ireland House of Commons as a Member of Parliament for East Down in 1949. 

In 1971, he was elected as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and Prime Minister of Northern Ireland as the security situation worsened. However, the Northern Ireland Parliament was suspended in March 1972 and direct rule from London was introduced.

In 1973, Brian Faulkner was appointed Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Assembly which was created following the Sunningdale Agreement. However, amidst significant unionist opposition to the Agreement, he resigned five months later. 

Other Prominent Political Figures

Dehra Chichester, Nee Kerr Fisher (1882-1963) Later known as Dame Dehra Parker

Born in India in 1882, Dame Dehra Parker was elected to Northern Ireland House of Commons in 1921 as an Ulster Unionist Member of Parliament (MP) for Londonderry.

Her parliamentary career would span 35 years, making her the longest serving female MP in the Northern Ireland Parliament.

She was appointed Minister of Health in 1949 and held this position until 1957, during which time she had responsibility for overseeing the introduction of the National Health Service to Northern Ireland.

She was the only woman appointed to Cabinet during the existence of the Northern Ireland Parliament, and the sole female member of the Northern Ireland Privy Council. 

Éamon de Valera (1882-1975)

Born in New York in 1882, Éamon de Valera took part in the 1916 Easter Rising. He was sentenced to death but had his sentence commuted. He first held political office in 1917, elected to the House of Commons in London as a Member of Parliament for East Clare. 

Re-elected to Westminster in 1918 he refused to take his seat but was appointed ‘President of the Irish Republic’ by Dáil Eireann (the Republican Assembly in Dublin) in 1919.    

In 1921, and again in 1933, he was also elected to the Northern Ireland House of Commons representing Down and later, South Down. However, he again refused to take his seat. 

During his long political career, Éamon de Valera served as President of Sinn Féin and leader of the Fianna Fail Party which he founded. He was also appointed Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and later President of Ireland. 

Michael Collins (1890-1922)

Born in County Cork in 1890, Michael Collins first held political office in 1918 when he was elected to the House of Commons in London as a Member of Parliament (MP) for Cork South. However, he did not take his seat. 

In 1921, he was elected to the Northern Ireland House of Commons as the MP for Armagh but again refused to recognise the Parliament and take his seat.

Michael Collins was one of the Irish leaders in the negotiations which led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed in December 1921.

He was elected as Chairman of the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State in January 1922. However, divisions over the treaty led to the Irish Civil War in which Michael Collins was assassinated on 22 August 1922.

Arthur Griffith (1871-1922)

Born in Dublin in 1871, Arthur Griffith was one of the founding members of Sinn Féin and first held political office in 1918 when he was elected to the House of Commons in London as a Member of Parliament (MP), representing East Cavan and Tyrone North West. However, he refused to take his seat. 

He was also elected to the Northern Ireland House of Commons as the MP for Fermanagh and Tyrone, but again refused recognise the legitimacy of the Parliament.

In January 1922, he was elected President of Dáil Éireann – the lower house of the Oireachtas - and served in this role until his sudden death in August 1922. 

Joe Devlin (1871-1934)

Born in Belfast in 1871, Joe Devlin – also known as “Wee Joe” – worked as a barman and later as a journalist before being elected to the House of Commons in London in 1902 as a Member of Parliament (MP) for Kilkenny North. During his time as an MP in Westminster, Joe Devlin became an outspoken critic of the Government’s policy towards Ireland. 

He led the Irish Parliamentary Party between 1918 and 1921, and the Nationalist Party from 1928 until his death in 1934.

In 1921, he was elected to the Northern Ireland House of Commons as the MP for Belfast West but refused to take his seat. In 1925, he was re-elected and officially took his seat in the Northern Ireland Parliament.  

Cahir Healy (1877-1970)

Born in County Donegal in 1877, Cahir Healy first held political office in 1922 when, while interned by the unionist government, he was elected as a Member of Parliament (MP) in the House of Commons in London, representing Fermanagh and Tyrone.

In 1925, Cahir Healy was also elected as an MP in the Northern Ireland House of Commons, representing Fermanagh and Tyrone between 1925 and 1929. However, he did not take his seat until 1927. He retired from politics in 1965. 

One of the 12 founding members of Sinn Féin, Cahir Healy’s political career spanned more than 60 years and he ended his career as Father of the House, the longest serving Member, in the Northern Ireland Parliament. 

Thomas Joseph (TJ) Campbell (1871-1946)

Born in Belfast in 1871, TJ Campbell, a King’s Counsel, was appointed to the Northern Ireland Senate in 1929, becoming the first Nationalist to enter the upper house of the Northern Ireland Parliament.  He served in the Senate until 1934 when he was elected as a Member of Parliament (MP) in the Northern Ireland House of Commons, representing Belfast Central. 

In 1931, he would introduce the only Nationalist sponsored Bill to become law in the Northern Ireland Parliament, the Wild Birds Protection Act, for which he was honoured with a silver medal by the RSPCA. 

From 1934 to 1945, and spanning the period of the Second World War, he served as leader of the Nationalist Party in the Northern Ireland Parliament. He resigned as an MP in 1946 to become a county court judge. 

Eddie McAteer (1914-1986)

Born in Scotland in 1914 to Irish parents, Eddie McAteer was raised in Derry/Londonderry and first trained as an accountant.

In 1945, he became a founding member of the Anti-Partition League, and was elected as a Member of Parliament (MP) in the Northern Ireland House of Commons the same year. He remained an MP until 1969, representing Mid Londonderry and Foyle. 

He served as leader of the Nationalist Party between 1964 and 1969. In 1965, he became the first Nationalist Party leader to accept the office of official leader of the Opposition in the Northern Ireland Parliament. 

Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson 
(1864-1922)

Born in County Longford in 1864, Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson held numerous positions in the British Army including Director of Military Operations and Chief of the Imperial General Staff.

In 1922, he was elected as an Ulster Unionist Member of Parliament for North Down in the House of Commons in London. He was also appointed as security advisor to the Northern Ireland government. 

On 22 June 1922, Sir Henry Wilson was assassinated by two members of the Irish Republican Army outside his home in London. His death would inadvertently trigger the outbreak of the Irish Civil War six days later. 

Eoin MacNeill (1867-1945)

Born in Glenarm, County Antrim in 1867, Eoin MacNeill was an Irish language scholar and founder of the Gaelic League (1893). A professor of history, he also served as Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers at the time of the 1916 Easter Rising and sought to countermand the order for an insurrection.

In 1918, he was elected to the British House of Commons, representing Londonderry and the National University. However, he followed Sinn Féin’s policy of abstentionism and refused to take his seat.

Eoin MacNeill also represented Sinn Féin during the first Northern Ireland election in 1921, becoming a Member of Parliament for Londonderry but again refused to take his seat. 

He served as Speaker (Ceann Comhairle) of Dáil Éireann (1919-1922), and as the first Minister of Education in the Irish Free State. He was appointed as the Irish Free State’s representative to the Irish Boundary Commission in 1923, which had the purpose of reviewing the border dividing the island of Ireland. However, he resigned from the Commission and political office in 1925.

The Construction of Parliament Buildings

Picture: Sir Arnold Thornley (Courtesy of the Liverpool Record Office)

Picture: An artist’s impression of what the original Parliament Buildings was to look like, including a tower, dome and three floors. (Courtesy of the Liverpool Record Office)

Parliament Buildings is the seat of the current Assembly, and was the seat of the Northern Ireland parliamentary institutions that preceded it. In 1922, approval was given for the construction of new buildings to house the Parliament, Government and Courts Service for the newly created Northern Ireland. A site was also required for these buildings.  A number of potential options were identified, with final agreement made to purchase the Stormont Estate in East Belfast, for £20,000. 

The architect selected to draw up the design plans was Arnold Thornley. Born in England, he was involved with the plans for a number of key structures in Liverpool, including Mersey Docks and the Royal Liver building. However, Arnold Thornley is most famous for his work on the Parliament Buildings in Belfast and was subsequently knighted in 1932. 

The original plans included multiple buildings, a tower and a dome. While the foundations were built for these, plans for the dome and multiple buildings were scrapped due to rising costs. The term ‘Parliament Buildings’ recalls the original intention for multiple structures.

There were differing perspectives on the construction of Parliament Buildings which reflected the political divisions caused by the partition of Ireland.

Unionists, led by Prime Minister James Craig, were keen to establish a ‘stately’ building to enhance the status of the new Parliament and Government. However, Irish Nationalist leader Joe Devlin was opposed to building a ‘palace in no man’s land.’ 

The Opening of Parliament Buildings in 1932

Parliament Buildings was officially opened by HRH Prince of Wales, Edward VIII on 16 November 1932. 

This is an image of the original programme produced for the opening.

The Role of the Senate in the Northern Ireland Parliament 1921-72

Lord Pirrie, Chairman of Harland and Wolff

The Senate was the second chamber of the Northern Ireland Parliament, similar to the House of Lords at Westminster. The Senate consisted of 26 members, 24 of whom were elected by the members of the Northern Ireland House of Commons. The remaining two Senators took their seats as ex-officio members: The Lord Mayor of Belfast and Mayor of Londonderry.

A number of high-profile people served as members of the Senate. Lord Pirrie, Chairman of Harland and Wolff – the world’s largest shipyard at that time – sat in the Senate between 1921 and 1924. He had been due to sail on the ill-fated maiden voyage of the Titanic, but illness prevented it. He was a liberal unionist who was in favour of Home Rule for Ireland.

 Although intended as a revising chamber to examine the laws passed by the House of Commons, in practice the Senate had limited power. 

Senator Lennon (Courtesy of Victor Patterson)

Senator Clark (Courtesy of the Orange Order)

Between 1962 and 1963, two Senators from opposing political backgrounds embarked on discussions in an effort to address the grievances of the nationalist minority. Senator Gerry Lennon (1944-72), was a Vice President of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. Senator 

George Clark (1951-69) became the Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland in 1957. 

The process they engaged in was labelled as the ‘Orange and Green’ talks. Although they were unsuccessful, these talks were a forerunner of the series of various negotiations and processes which would follow over the next 40 years.

The Speakers of the Northern Ireland Parliament

Robert William Hugh O’Neill, Lord Rathcavan (1883-1982) - Known as Sir Hugh O’Neill 

Born in Shane’s Castle, County Antrim in 1883, Sir Hugh O’Neill was a Member of Parliament in the British House of Commons continuously from 1915 to 1952, and in the Northern Ireland House of Commons from 1921 to 1929. He was appointed as the first Speaker of the Northern Ireland Parliament in 1921 and served in the role until 1929. 

Sir Hugh O’Neill’s nephew, Terence O’Neill, would later serve as the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland (1963-1969). 

Sir Henry George Hill Mulholland
(1888-1971)

Born in Ballywalter, County Down in 1888, Sir Henry Mulholland was a member of the Northern Ireland House of Commons for 24 years, representing Down and Ards between 1921 and 1945.  

In 1929, he was elected as Speaker of the House of Commons and held the role until his retirement in 1945. 

Sir Charles Norman Lockhart Stronge (1894-1981) - Known as Sir Norman Stronge

Born in Bryansford, County Down in 1894, Sir Norman Stronge was elected to the Northern Ireland House of Commons in 1938, representing Mid Armagh for 31 years.  In 1945 he was appointed as Speaker, and held this position for close to 24 years until his resignation from politics in 1969. 

On 21 January 1981, Sir Norman Stronge was killed, along with his son James, by the Provisional Irish Republican Army at his home, Tynan Abbey. His residence was set on fire and burnt to the ground during the attack. 

Sir Ivan Neill (1906-2001)

Born in Belfast in 1906, Sir Ivan Neill served as a Major with the Royal Engineers in the Second World War. He was elected as a Member of Parliament (MP) to the Northern Ireland House of Commons in 1949, representing Belfast Ballynafeigh. He held a number of ministerial portfolios including Labour and National Insurance, Home Affairs and Finance. 

In 1969 he was elected as the fourth Speaker of the House of Commons, holding this position for three years. He resigned as Speaker and as an MP following the British Government’s announcement of Direct Rule in 1972.

Speaker's Ceremonial Robes

These were worn by the Speakers of the Northern Ireland Parliament between 1921 and 1973. The Speaker wore a robe of black satin damask, trimmed with gold lace, with full bottomed wig on state occasions.  Underneath the robe, traditional court dress would have been worn including knee breeches, silk stockings and buckled court shoes.

In 1973, following the introduction of Direct Rule, these Ceremonial Robes were loaned to Malone House in Barnett’s Demesne for an exhibition. As the result of a fire bomb attack on Malone House, the robes were badly damaged but were later professionally restored.

Picture: Image of Speakers of the Northern Ireland Parliament wearing their ceremonial robes. Image courtesy of Northern Ireland Screen Digital Film Archive

Smaller Parties and Independents in the Northern Ireland Parliament 1921-72

While unionist and nationalist divisions often defined the Northern Ireland Parliament, there were also voices from other perspectives in the chamber. 

Tommy Henderson (Northern Ireland MP from 1925-1953)

The Northern Ireland Parliament saw independent unionists elected who were prepared to challenge the ruling Ulster Unionist party. The most notable of these was Tommy Henderson (Northern Ireland MP from 1925-53). His most memorable  contribution was his record setting speech on budget legislation in May 1936 which lasted for almost ten hours.  

During the Second World War, he also criticised the Government for failing to adequately prepare for enemy air attacks, which resulted in a severe loss of life during the Belfast Blitz in 1941.

Sheelagh Murnaghan (1924-1993)

Born in Dublin in 1924, Sheelagh Murnaghan studied law at Queen’s University Belfast before being admitted to the Bar of Northern Ireland. 

Between 1961 and 1969, she represented the university constituency of Queen’s University Belfast in the Northern Ireland Parliament. 

An Ulster Liberal Party representative, Sheelagh Murnaghan would campaign for a bill of Human Rights and for the abolishment of the death penalty during her parliamentary career.

Harry Midgley (1893-1957)

Born in North Belfast in 1893, Harry Midgley became a shipyard worker and Labour activist. He helped found the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) in 1924. He was elected to the Northern Ireland House of Commons in 1933 as a NILP Member of Parliament (MP) for Belfast Dock.

He served as leader of the NILP between 1933 and 1938. 

In 1942, Harry Midgely founded and led the pro-Union Commonwealth Labour Party. The following year he was appointed Minister of Public Security, becoming the first non-Ulster Unionist Party MP to hold a ministerial position. 

A member of the Ulster Unionist Party from 1947, he served in the Northern Ireland government as Minister of Labour (1949-52) and Minister of Education (1952-57).

David Bleakley (1925-2017)

Born in Belfast in 1925, David Bleakley, a school teacher, was elected to the Northern Ireland House of Commons in 1958 as a Member of Parliament (MP) for Belfast Victoria, representing the Northern Ireland Labour Party.  

In 1971 - despite no longer being an MP – David Bleakley was appointed Minister for Community Relations in Brian Faulkner’s Government. However, five days before his term was to end, he resigned from his post in protest against government policy which included the introduction of internment.

Following the abolition of the Northern Ireland Parliament, he was elected to the first power-sharing Northern Ireland Assembly established in 1973 under the Sunningdale Agreement. 

Gerard Benedict (G.B.) Newe CBE (1907-1982)

Born in Cushendall, County Antrim in 1907, G.B Newe was a Northern Irish journalist and civil servant who served as Minister of State in the Northern Ireland government between 1971 and 1972. 

Although not an elected Member of Parliament, he was appointed to the position by Prime Minister Brian Faulkner.  He was the first and only Catholic to serve as a Minister in the Northern Ireland House of Commons. 


Zone 3 - The 1960s to the 1980s

The Fall of the Northern Ireland Parliament , 1921 to 1972

Direct Rule’ – Belfast News Letter headline, 24 March 1972 (Courtesy of the Belfast News Letter)

Picture: Unionist leaders on Parliament Buildings balcony (Courtesy of the Belfast Telegraph Archives)

During its 50 years of existence, the Northern Ireland Parliament and Government had to deal with many challenges. The divisions between unionism and nationalism remained a constant tension, and these continue to influence differing perspectives on the Parliament to this day

While the Parliament oversaw a range of achievements - such as the introduction of the National Health Service and the state welfare system to Northern Ireland - it was also criticised as failing to address, and give equal treatment to, the needs of the minority nationalist community. This long-standing criticism would lead to the creation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in 1967.

The eruption of violence in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s onwards, commonly known as “The Troubles”, contributed to the fall of the Parliament that had operated since 1921. Faced with a violent republican campaign, the Stormont Government opted for a strong security response, including measures such as internment - imprisonment without trial. However, this approach only strengthened perceptions of the Government’s mistreatment of the minority nationalist community.

With a spiralling security crisis and differences in approach between the Westminster and Stormont Governments on how to respond, the UK Government suspended the Parliament on 30 March 1972.  It was formally abolished one year later under the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973. This marked the start of what would become a long period of Northern Ireland being governed directly from London (commonaly known as direct rule).

The 1970s

Picture: ‘Ulster’s Men of Destiny’ - Belfast Telegraph headline, 22 November 1973 (Courtesy of the Belfast Telegraph Archives)

After the fall of the Northern Ireland Parliament in 1972, attention turned to creating a government which could command support across all parts of the community. Elections were held in 1973 to an Assembly consisting of 78 members, however republicans did not take part. The Assembly had its first sitting at Parliament Buildings on 31 July 1973. 

Following the election, negotiations began on forming a power-sharing government and an agreement was formally signed on 9 December 1973 at Sunningdale in Berkshire, England. The Sunningdale Agreement made provision for a power-sharing Executive composed of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and Alliance Party. The Agreement also made provision for a cross-border Council of Ireland. 

The first cross-party, power-sharing Executive in Northern Ireland’s history met for the first time on 1 January 1974. UUP leader, Brian Faulkner served as the Chief Executive while SDLP leader, Gerry Fitt served as Deputy Chief Executive. Unionist Ministers included Basil McIvor (Education), Herbert Kirk (Finance) and Roy Bradford (Environment). Nationalist Ministers included John Hume (Commerce), Paddy Devlin (Health) and Austin Currie (Housing and Local Government). Oliver Napier (Alliance Party) served as Legal Minister and Head of the Office of Law Reform.

Picture: Power-sharing Executive (Courtesy of Victor Patterson)

However, opposition to the Sunningdale Agreement within broader unionism saw Brian Faulkner resign as UUP party leader in January 1974. The UK General Election held in February 1974 saw the UUP, Vanguard Unionist Progressive Party and Democratic Unionist Party form the United Ulster Unionist Council (UUUC) to oppose Sunningdale. The UUUC candidates won 11 of the 12 constituencies, defeating parties who supported the Agreement. 

Picture: Ian Paisley addressing participants of the Ulster Workers’ Council strike (Courtesy of Victor Patterson)

The loyalist Ulster Workers' Council called a general strike for 15 May 1974. Following widespread public disorder, violence and critical power shortages, the Executive collapsed with the resignation of Brian Faulkner as Chief Executive on 28 May 1974.

Further efforts to establish a Government took place in 1975, with elections being held to create a 78-member Constitutional Convention. The Constitutional Convention sat in Parliament Buildings and was initially intended to act as a consultative body with more powers given to the body if there was cross-community agreement. However, the elections returned a majority of unionist members who opposed power-sharing. 

As a result, the Convention produced a report which advocated a return to a form of majority rule government but the UK Government rejected this. The Convention was formally dissolved on 4 March 1976.  It would be six years before another elected body would meet at Stormont.

The 1980s

Picture: ‘Death Blow for the Assembly’ - Belfast Telegraph headline, 12 June 1986 (Courtesy of the Belfast Telegraph Archives)

In 1982, there were further efforts to re-establish a local government. Elections were held on 20 October 1982 to a Northern Ireland Assembly consisting of 78 Members, again based at Parliament Buildings. The Assembly’s initial role was to serve as a consultative body, but the then Northern Ireland Secretary of State, James Prior, proposed a form of ‘rolling devolution’.  This would see the UK Government hand over additional powers to the devolved administration once cross-community agreement was achieved between the parties.

These were the first elections contested by the modern Sinn Féin party and followed hunger strikes undertaken by republican prisoners in 1981. Five Sinn Féin candidates were elected, including Gerry Adams and future deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.  However, each candidate refused to take their seat. Similarly, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, while contesting the elections, also stated its intent to boycott the Assembly. 

The Assembly sat between 1982 and 1986, but no cross-community agreement was achieved to grant the Assembly powers. The British and Irish Governments signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement (AIA) in November 1985, with the Agreement stipulating that any change to Northern Ireland’s constitutional position would only happen if a majority of people supported it. The AIA would also give a consultative role to the Irish Government on a number of matters.

However, unionist Assembly Members opposed the AIA, making any prospect of a cross-party deal unlikely. Unionists would use the Assembly as a focus for their opposition to the AIA which resulted in the withdrawal of the Alliance party in December 1985. The UK Government abolished the Assembly in 1986. On its final day, loyalist protestors gathered outside Parliament Buildings and 22 unionist Assembly Members refused to leave the Assembly Chamber. These Members (including future First Ministers Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson) were removed from the Chamber by the Royal Ulster Constabulary the next day. For the next twelve years, there would be no Assembly at Parliament Buildings.

Public Tours of Parliament Buildings

Zone 4 - The 1990s and the Road to Creating the Assembly

Picture: ‘Its Over’ - Belfast Telegraph headline, 31 August 1994. The headline references the end of the IRA’s ceasefire (Courtesy of the Belfast Telegraph Archives)

In the early 1990s, efforts by the British and Irish Governments to establish a new process of political negotiations could not ignore continuing republican and loyalist violence. 

In 1993, John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, was heavily criticised when it was revealed that he had been holding secret talks with Gerry Adams, President of Sinn Féin, in an attempt to end violence. By the end of the year, Prime Minister John Major and Taoiseach Albert Reynolds issued the Downing Street Declaration to establish the basis of a new political process.

In August 1994, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) declared a ceasefire, followed in October 1994 by a loyalist ceasefire. The potential for new multi-party negotiations began to emerge and British and Irish Government proposals included the creation of a 90-member Assembly. 

The British Government announced that elections would be held in May 1996 to the Northern Ireland Forum for Political Dialogue which would provide parties with a mandate for negotiations. However, it was not welcomed by nationalists and republicans. In February 1996, the IRA ceasefire ended with the bombing of Canary Wharf in London. In the elections to the Forum, Sinn Féin achieved a record vote but did not take their seats. 

Political negotiations began in June 1996, under the chairmanship of American Senator George Mitchell but without Sinn Féin. In May 1997, the election of Prime Minister Tony Blair in the UK, followed in June by the election of Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in Ireland, brought a new momentum to the talks. In July 1997, the IRA declared a new ceasefire.  One month later, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, announced that Sinn Féin would be included in the political negotiations.

Picture: George Mitchell, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern during the political negotiations (Courtesy of PA Images/Alamy)

While some unionist parties refused to participate - including the Democratic Unionist Party - David Trimble led the Ulster Unionist Party into the talks. The talks represented the first time that unionists, loyalists, nationalists and republicans had taken part in negotiations together. 

Following two years of negotiations, an historic agreement was reached on the 10 April 1998, Good Friday. This signified the end to “The Troubles” which had spanned three decades with over 3,500 people losing their lives. 

The Good Friday/ Belfast Agreement

Picture: ‘It’s Yes’ – Belfast Telegraph Headline, 23 May 1998. (Courtesy of the Belfast Telegraph Archives)

The Good Friday or Belfast Agreement, was an international agreement approved by public vote in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Some 81.1% of the population of Northern Ireland took part and 71.12% voted Yes to support the Agreement. In the Republic of Ireland, 94.39% voted Yes. 

As a sign of the international recognition of the Agreement, David Trimble and John Hume were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at a ceremony in Oslo, Norway in December 1998.

A key part of the Agreement was the creation of the Northern Ireland Assembly which meets in Parliament Buildings today. The Agreement also specified that the Assembly would be able to make decisions that had previously been made in London (devolution). 


“This agreement provides for a democratically elected Assembly in Northern Ireland which is inclusive in its membership, capable of exercising executive and legislative authority, and subject to safeguards to protect the rights and interests of all sides of the community”

Other core elements of the Agreement included:

  • The principle of consent – that there would be no change on the constitutional question of whether Northern Ireland should remain in the United Kingdom, or be part of a United Ireland without a majority of people voting for it. 
  • There would be a power sharing administration with all parties holding government and Assembly positions according to the number of Members they had elected. 
  • The most senior posts in government, First Minister and deputy First Minister, would be a joint office with both having to agree for decisions to be taken.
  • The creation of the North/ South Ministerial Council to enable co-operation on key areas on the island of Ireland on a cross-border basis.
  • The establishment of the British-Irish Council to promote East-West relations between the British and Irish Governments and the governments in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.
  • Equality and human rights safeguards to ensure the interests of all parts of the community are protected in decision making.

The contents of the Agreement were put into law in The Northern Ireland Act 1998.  This remains the central piece of law setting out how the Assembly works.

Picture: David Trimble, Tony Blair and John Hume during political negotiations (Courtesy of Crispin Rodwell/Alamy)

In 1998 David Trimble and John Hume, were jointly awarded the Noble Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway for their work in negotiating the Good Friday/ Belfast Agreement.  The award symbolised the recognition given to the Agreement as an international treaty.

The Northern Ireland Assembly 1998

A total of 108 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) were elected on 25 June 1998.  The new Northern Ireland Assembly created under the Good Friday/ Belfast Agreement held its first meeting on 1 July 1998 in Castle Buildings on the Stormont Estate. The Assembly Chamber in Parliament Buildings was being refurbished at the time following a fire in 1995.

This was the first elected body at Stormont in which all parties took up their seats. Lord Alderdice served as the first Speaker for the new Assembly. David Trimble was elected as the First Minister (Designate) and Seamus Mallon was elected as deputy First Minister (Designate). The Assembly met in shadow form for a period to put initial arrangements in place. 

Decommissioning - the disposal of weapons by those who previously engaged in violence - in advance of a government being formed was a significant issue for unionism. The absence of decommissioning in Northern Ireland led to the first deadline for appointing Ministers in July 1999 being missed. 

Senator George Mitchell returned to facilitate a review of the political process with the political parties. Following this, the Assembly met on 29 November 

1999 and appointed Ministers to the Executive. This was the first power-sharing government in Northern Ireland to contain unionist, nationalist and republican representatives. However, the two Ministers appointed by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which had opposed the Agreement, refused to attend Executive meetings.

Picture: The Northern Ireland Assembly Executive (Courtesy of Paul Faith/Alamy)

Against this backdrop, the first few years of the new Assembly were far from smooth and it was suspended on a number of occasions including in 2000, 2001 and 2002. 

New Assembly elections were held in 2003 which led to the DUP becoming the biggest party within unionism for the first time and Sinn Féin becoming the biggest party within nationalism for the first time. This set the ground for further negotiations. 

Appointment of David Trimble and Seamus Mallon as First Minister and deputy First Minister

Picture: David Trimble (right) and Seamus Mallon (left) pictured shaking hands as they are appointed First and deputy First Ministers in 1998. Lord Alderdice, Speaker of the Assembly, can be seen in the background. Image courtesy of Alan Lewis/Alamy

The first Northern Ireland Assembly following the Good Friday/ Belfast Agreement returned the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) as the largest unionist party and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) as the largest nationalist party. 

 On 2 December 1999, David Trimble (UUP leader) was elected as First Minister, and Seamus Mallon (SDLP deputy leader) was elected as deputy First Minister in the first power-sharing Executive.

A Series of Negotiations

Over the years that followed, fresh negotiations between the political parties and the British and Irish Governments have been required from time to time to deal with significant political challenges. These included:

Over the years that followed, fresh negotiations between the political parties and the British and Irish Governments have been required from time to time to deal with significant political challenges. These included:

2006 The St Andrews Agreement – As the two largest parties for the first time, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin reached agreement on a range of issues including changes to how the Assembly and Executive operated and support for policing. The Assembly was restored from suspension on 8 May 2007 when Ian Paisley was appointed First Minister and Martin McGuinness was appointed as deputy First Minister.

2010 The Hillsborough Agreement – The major outcome of the Hillsborough Agreement was to agree that the Assembly would be given responsibility for policing and justice with a Justice Minister being elected by cross-community support. David Ford, leader of the Alliance Party, was elected as the first Justice Minister under the new arrangements on 10 April 2010. 

2014 The Stormont House Agreement – The Stormont House Agreement dealt with a wide range of issues which had been the subject of political tensions including addressing the legacy of “The Troubles” for victims, cultural issues, welfare and financial policies, and changes to the political institutions. In November 2015, the Fresh Start Agreement was reached to deal with the implementation of outstanding matters from the Stormont House Agreement.

2020 The “New Decade, New Approach” Deal – The Assembly held fresh elections on 2 March 2017 after Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy First Minister over a range of issues. After the election, an Executive could not be appointed and the Assembly did not meet for normal business for three years. In January 2020, all parties agreed to form an Executive following the publication of The New Decade, New Approach Deal by the British and Irish Governments. The wide-ranging deal set out priorities for the new Executive and actions on issues which were the subject of political division, including the operation of the Executive and Assembly and language rights.

St Andrews Agreement 2006

On 13 October 2006, the St Andrews Agreement was reached following extensive negotiations in St Andrews Scotland, between the British and Irish Governments, and the political parties in Northern Ireland. The Agreement set out a framework for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin to restore devolved government in Northern Ireland. On 26 March 2007, DUP leader, Ian Paisley and President of Sinn Féin, Gerry Adams, held their first meeting in the Long Gallery of Parliament Buildings to confirm that their parties would enter into a power-sharing government together.

Following the St Andrews Agreement, devolved government was restored to Northern Ireland on 8 May 2007 following the Assembly’s suspension in 2002. Ian Paisley was appointed as First Minister and Martin McGuinness was appointed as deputy First Minister.  Prime Minister Tony Blair, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, and other international dignitaries attended a ceremony in Parliament Buildings to mark the event

The Hillsborough Agreement 2010

On 5 February 2010, the Hillsborough Agreement was agreed at Hillsborough Castle by the British and Irish Governments and the political parties.  The Agreement enabled the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Northern Ireland Executive. This was the first time they had been devolved to a local legislature since 1972.

Appointment of the First Justice Minister

Policing and justice powers were officially devolved from Westminster to the Northern Ireland Assembly on 12 April 2010. 

David Ford, leader of the Alliance Party between 2001 and 2016, was elected by a cross-community vote of the Assembly to serve as the first Justice Minister.  He held the position for six years. 

"New Decade, New Approach” – Appointment of Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill as First Minister and deputy First Minister

Following three years with no political agreement to form an Executive, the British and Irish Governments published the New Decade, New Approach Deal on 9 January 2020 which set out a comprehensive range of outstanding issues and commitments.  At a rare Saturday sitting of the Assembly on 11 January 2020, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Sinn Féin, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Alliance Party all nominated Ministers to form a new Executive.

 DUP leader, Arlene Foster was appointed First Minister and Sinn Féin Vice-President, Michelle O’Neill was appointed deputy First Minister. 


Other Portraits...

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)

Born in County Derry in 1939, Seamus Heaney was an accomplished poet and playwright, who wrote more than 20 volumes of poetry. A professor at Harvard University (1981-1997) and University of Oxford (1989-1994), one of his best-known works is Death of a Naturalist (1966).

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963)

Born in Belfast in 1898, Clive Staples Lewis was an accomplished scholar and novelist, writing more than thirty books during his lifetime. His most famous novels, The Chronicles of Narnia, were a series of seven children’s books, which have sold more than 100 million copies.

Zone 5 - Items of Parliamentary Interest

The Tale of the Maces

Maces are a common feature in many parliaments across the world. These two silver Maces displayed were specifically commissioned for the Northern Ireland Parliament (1921-1972), and bear the Red Hand of Ulster motif. 

In June 1986, police were called to Parliament Buildings when Democratic Unionist Party politician Ivan Foster seized the Mace in an attempt to prevent the official ceremonial closure of the then Northern Ireland Assembly taking place.

Building Indenture

This indenture (deed or ageement) shows the purchase of Stormont Castle and surrounding lands for the purpose of making provision for the accommodation of a Parliament in Northern Ireland.

When the Northern Ireland Parliament was established in 1921, the first Government commissioned Sir Arnold Thornley to design a permanent home for the Parliament.  Parliament Buildings was officially opened by HRH Prince of Wales, Edward VIII on 16 November 1932.

Black Rod’s Wand of Office 

The Black Rod acted as the Monarch’s representative in the Northern Ireland Senate, with their primary duty to maintain order within the upper house of Parliament. 

The name Black Rod derives from the ebony rod the post holder carries, which is three and a half feet long, topped with a gold lion. 

When King George V and Queen Mary travelled to Belfast to officially open the Northern Ireland Parliament, the Black Rod summoned the newly elected Members of Parliament to hear the King’s Speech. 

The Black Rod’s uniform consisted of black shoes with black buckles, black breeches, silk stockings and a black coat

‘The Pope, the Prince and the Painting’

This painting, which formed part of the famous collection of the Marquis of Curzon, was believed to have portrayed King William III on his way to the Battle of the Boyne. It was purchased, sight unseen, for the sum of £209 and 14 Shillings by Prime Minister, James Craig on behalf of the Northern Ireland Government.

This painting was presented to the Northern Ireland Parliament and was hung in the south corridor of Parliament Buildings in March 1933, shortly after the opening of the building.  It immediately caused much consternation, as it allegedly depicted Catholic Pope Innocent XI bestowing a blessing on King William III whose victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 is annually commemorated by the Orange Order, a Protestant organisation, on the 12 of July.

The painting was the focus of a major incident at Parliament Buildings on 2 May 1933, when it was vandalised by a group of visitors who had travelled from Scotland with the specific purpose of defacing the artwork. Charles Forrester, a member of the Scottish Protestant League threw red paint over the picture of the Pope while his colleagues, Mrs Mary Radcliffe and Miss Nancy Dykes, slashed the painting with a knife. Following their arrest each of them was fined £65.

The painting was taken away to be repaired.  On its return, in addition to the repairs made, it was noticed that a rosary which the hermit in the foreground of the painting had been holding had been removed. 

After being placed in storage, it was subsequently moved to the Public Record Office for some years. It was only after a request from the Reverend Ian Paisley that the painting was returned to Parliament Buildings in 1983, hanging in his office until 1986 when the Northern Ireland Assembly was dissolved. Following a further period in storage, the portrait was hung in the Speaker’s Office from May 2007.

 

There has been much interest in the painting over the years and it was featured in a BBC series in 2016 entitled Britain’s Lost Masterpieces. Art historians concluded that the painting does not, in fact, portray King William III at all, but is most likely a representation of Saint George.

In association with the College of Arms in London, the art historians considered the emblems on the flag on the right hand side of the painting, showing a red cross on a white background along with a crossbow and crown. It is suggested that the flag shows the cross of Burgundy associated with the Spanish Habsburg monarchy of the 18 century, which points to the Spanish Netherlands (now modern Belgium). 

The figures in the foreground, are associated with the members of the medieval guild of crossbow men of St George of Antwerp, attested by the crossbow and the three-leaf crown of the City of Antwerp on the flag design.

 Whatever its provenance, the painting’s origins and the dramatic reactions to its disputed imagery, provide a unique perspective on politics within Parliament Buildings in the early decades of Northern Ireland.

The Representation of Women

Picture: Julia McMordie (Courtesy of the Linen Hall Library)

Picture: Dehra Chichester (later Dame Dehra Parker)

In 1918, women first gained the right to vote under the UK Representation of the People Act (although only women over 30 who owned property had the right to vote in national elections until this changed in 1928). The role of women in local political institutions has undergone significant change since the Northern Ireland Parliament was created in 1921.

In 1921, there were only two women elected, Dehra Chichester (later Dame Dehra Parker) and Julia McMordie. Indeed, during the life of the Northern Ireland Parliament (1921-72) only nine women in total were elected as MPs. Dame Dehra Parker (first elected in 1921, retired in 1960) was the first female Minister appointed in Northern Ireland, and the Minister who oversaw the introduction of the NHS to Northern Ireland. Julia McMordie focused on social issues like health, education and unemployment. During the failed attempts to create new elected bodies in 1973 and 1982, only four women were elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1973 and this dropped to three in 1982.

The Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition was founded to contest the 1996 elections to the Northern Ireland Forum for Political Dialogue, and was successful in winning a place at the subsequent political negotiations. The party then put forward candidates to contest the 1998 Assembly elections when Professor Monica McWilliams and Jane Morrice were both elected. Professor McWilliams would go on to be appointed Human Rights Commissioner for Northern Ireland.

The Good Friday/ Belfast Agreement in 1998, recognised the importance of female representation in politics and the stated “right of women to full and equal political participation.” 

Picture: The Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition Party (Courtesy of Derek Speirs)

Since 1998, the role of women as elected representatives in the Northern Ireland Assembly has become increasingly prominent.

In 1999, Bríd Rodgers (Social Democratic and Labour Party) and Bairbre de Brún (Sinn Féin) became the first female non-unionist Ministers to be appointed. Bríd Rodgers was in charge of Northern Ireland's response to the outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease that threatened the farming sector, and beyond, in 2001. As Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, Bairbre de Brún took responsibility of one of the biggest departments in the Executive.

In 2006 Eileen Bell (Alliance) was appointed the first female Speaker (2006-07). In 2007, Anna Lo (Alliance) became the first, and to date only, elected representative to the Assembly from an ethnic minority background. Anna Lo was appointed as the Chair of the Northern Ireland Assembly's Environment Committee in 2011.

Picture: Bríd Rodgers (Courtesy of Paul Faith/Alamy)

Picture: Bairbre de Brún (Courtesy of Barry Batchelor/Alamy)

Picture: Anna Lo

 In 2016, the Assembly’s Women’s Caucus was formed, a cross-party group made up of all current women MLAs, with the aim to address the under-representation of women in politics. 

 In January 2020, Arlene Foster (Democratic Unionist Party) and Michelle O’Neill (Sinn Féin) were appointed to the most senior positions in the Executive, the First Minister and deputy First Minister. 

The majority of parties have also had female party leaders, such as Anne Dickson (Unionist Party of Northern Ireland Leader, 1976-81), Dawn Purvis (Progressive Unionist Party Leader, 2007-10), Margaret Ritchie (Social Democratic and Labour Party Leader, 2010-11), Arlene Foster (Democratic Unionist Party Leader, 2015-21), Naomi Long (Alliance Leader from 2016), Mary Lou McDonald (Sinn Féin Leader from 2018), Clare Bailey (Green Party Leader from 2018). 

Following the restoration of devolution in 2020, female elected representatives made up 33% of the 90 seats of the Assembly and it has since increased. 

Women Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly (2021)

Picture: This photograph, taken in June 2021, shows 29 of the 32 female Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Image courtesy of Press Eye.

Northern Ireland historically has had the lowest proportion of female representation in the UK devolved administrations. However, following the restoration of devolution in 2020, female elected representatives made up 33% of the 90 seats of the Northern Ireland Assembly. 

Arlene Foster (Democratic Unionist Party) and Michelle O’Neill (Sinn Féin) were also appointed to the most senior positions in the Executive, as First Minister and deputy First Minister respectively. 


Zone 6 - Events in Parliament Buildings and on the Stormont Estate

Royal Visits

On 3 July 1953, Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh visited Northern Ireland as part of the Coronation tour. During the tour, the Royal couple visited Parliament Buildings as pictured here in the Great Hall. 

In June 2012, the Queen and Prince Philip made a two-day visit to Northern Ireland as part of her Diamond Jubilee tour. On 27 June, 20,000 people gathered at the Stormont Estate to celebrate Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s 60-year reign.

Parliament Buildings during the Second World War

During the Second World War, much of Parliament Buildings was used by the Royal Air Force. The Senate Chamber was converted into an Operations Room, and the Senate relocated to a dining room within the Building. 

As Parliament Buildings was constructed with Portland Stone, it had a bright appearance. The Building therefore had to be camouflaged against enemy air raids. The stones were painted with bitumen and cow manure to make the Building blend in with the surrounding grounds. Whilst the paint was meant to be temporary, it took seven years to remove, and Parliament Buildings never returned to its original bright white colour. 

Fire in Parliament Buildings in 1995

On 2 January 1995, an electrical fault beneath the Speaker’s chair caused a devastating fire in the Assembly Chamber. Whilst no one was injured in the blaze, the fire did cause extensive damage, destroying the original English walnut wall panelling, and the gold and silver gilding on the columns and ceiling. Parliament Buildings had to be vacated for three years to allow for extensive restoration to take place.

Before the Fire

After the Fire

Asembly Chamber Today

North-South Relations Over the Years

Great Northern Railway of Ireland 

The Great Northern Railway of Ireland (GNRI) was founded in 1876 following a merger between the Northern Railway of Ireland, the North Western Railway and Ulster Railway. Together, the GNRI formed the main line between Dublin and Belfast.

In 1953, a historic cross-border agreement was established when the Irish and Northern Irish Governments jointly nationalised the company. The Agreement was signed on 10 August 1953 by William McCleery, Minister of Commerce in Northern Ireland, and Seán Lemass, Minister of Industry and Commerce in the Republic of Ireland.

A Board was created to run the company, with five members appointed by each government. However, in 1958 the GNRI was dissolved and the assets were divided between the two governments.

O’Neill-Lemass Meeting at Stormont

 On 14 January 1965, Northern Ireland Prime Minister, Terrence O’Neill welcomed Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland, Seán Lemass to Parliament Buildings. It was the first meeting between the leaders of the two states since 1922.

Picture: Northern Ireland Prime Minister, Terrence O’Neill (right) welcoming the Taoiseach Seán Lemass to Parliament Buildings.  Image courtesy of PRONI

Cavalcade to Stormont to lobby for a University in Derry/Londonderry 

 On 18 February 1965, 25,000 people joined a campaign for a university to be established in Derry/Londonderry.

The University for Derry Committee organised the protest following the suggestion that a new university would be built in Coleraine - a small market town – rather than Derry/Londonderry, which was the second largest city in Northern Ireland. The protest was led Eddie McAteer (nationalist Member of Parliament), Albert Anderson (unionist Mayor of Londonderry), and John Hume (future leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party).

Albert Anderson declared 18 February a public holiday in Derry/Londonderry. Pubs were closed, a two-minute silence was observed, and a cavalcade of 2,000 vehicles was led from Derry/Londonderry to Parliament Buildings. Despite the protests, the Northern Ireland government voted in favour of establishing a university in Coleraine. 

Picture: From left to right Eddie McAteer (nationalist Member of Parliament), Albert Anderson (unionist Mayor of Londonderry), and John Hume (future leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party). Image courtesy of Victor Patterson

 Ulster Workers Strike

 Between 15 May – 28 May 1974, the Ulster Workers Council (UWC) led a general strike to protest against the Sunningdale Agreement. 

Roads were blocked with barricades, postal services were disrupted, ports were closed, and several blackouts occurred due to a lack of essential staff. Merlyn Rees, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, declared a state of emergency on 19 May. 

On the 14th day of the strike, a convoy of tractors blocked the entrance to Parliament Buildings as farmers showed their support for the strike. On the same day, Brian Faulkner resigned as the Chief Executive of the power-sharing government, triggering the collapse of the six-months old power-sharing government and Sunningdale Agreement. The UWC called off the strike and the British government reintroduced Direct Rule from London. 

Image courtesy of Victor Patterson

First Meeting of the North/ South Interparliamentary Association in 2012

Following a commitment in the St Andrews Agreement, the North/South Inter-Parliamentary Association held its first meeting on 12 October 2012, in the Seanad Chamber, Leinster House, Dublin. 

The Association is comprised of Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Members of the Oireachtas in Dublin, meeting twice a year to discuss matters of mutual interest or concern.  

The inaugural meeting was chaired by William Hay, Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and Seán Barrett, Ceann Comhairle of Dáil Éireann. 

Hilary Clinton Visits the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2009

Over the years, it has been common for high profile international dignitaries and delegations to visit the Northern Ireland Assembly.  

On 12 October 2009, the United States Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton – also former First Lady of the United States of America - accepted an invitation from Speaker Hay to address the Assembly.  The visit symbolised a long-standing American interest in building political agreement in Northern Ireland.

Picture: Hillary Clinton addressing MLAs in the Assembly Chamber.  Image by John Harrison, kindly donated by Mandy Harrison

Events on the Stormont Estate 

In parallel with the negotiations which led to the Good Friday/ Belfast Agreement, Mo Mowlam, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (1997-1999), thought it was important to make the grounds around Parliament Buildings and the Stormont Estate, more accessible to the public.

Since then, numerous events have taken place and a selection of images from these events are shown as part of the exhbition.

Elton John Concert in 1998

On 27 May 1998, Elton John performed an open-air concert in front of Parliament Buildings only a few days after the referendum on the Good Friday/ Belfast Agreement, drawing 14,000 people to see the performance.

The Funeral of George Best in 2005

Born in Belfast in 1946, George Best was an internationally acclaimed footballer who spent the majority of his career at Manchester United (1963-1974). 

Named European Footballer of the Year in 1968, he also played for Northern Ireland’s national team 37 times between 1964 and 1977. 

 Following his death in 2005, his funeral was held in Parliament Buildings, with around 100,000 mourners lining the streets from his family home on Cregagh Road to the Stormont Estate.

Poc Fada in 2011

In July 2011, a Poc Fada event – Irish for ‘Long Puck’ – was held on the Stormont Estate. The Poc ar an Cnoc or ‘Puck on the Hill’ saw Hurling and Camogie players compete in the event, along with a celebrity and youth competition. 

Giro d’Italia in 2014

 In May 2014, the first stage of the Giro d’Italia was held in Northern Ireland. The three-day race began and finished at the Stormont Estate, with competitors from more than 30 countries taking part. 

Crashed Ice in 2015

In February 2015, Northern Ireland hosted the Red Bull Crashed Ice Event, which was held within the Stormont Estate. The 430-metre course began at Parliament Buildings down to the gates of the Estate, with 40,000 people attending the event over two days.

Chinese New Year in 2014 – Speaker William Hay

To celebrate the Chinese New Year in 2014, Speaker William Hay invited the Little Red Flower Dance Troupe from China to perform in the Great Hall in Parliament Buildings. 

St Patrick’s Day in 2016 – Speaker Mitchel McLaughlin 

St Patrick’s Day Events are commonly used by the Speaker to promote themes and groups. Themes over the years have included, ‘Mental Health’, ‘Disability’, ‘Cancer Awareness’ and ’Cross-Community’. 

 In 2016, Speaker Mitchel McLaughlin hosted a St Patrick’s Day Event to promote the theme of ‘Diversity’. To mark the occasion, the Innova Irish Dance Company was invited to perform.

The Lighting of the Assembly Christmas Tree in 2016 – Speaker Robin Newton

Speaker Robin Newton hosted a Christmas event to support initiatives which created opportunities within Northern Ireland and to recognise those organisations which had strived to make a difference within the wider community. 

 Pupils from St Patrick’s Primary School, Drumgreenagh, Rathfriland (BBC Junior School Choir of the Year), gave a performance and helped the Speaker to switch on the Christmas tree lights. 

Youth Assembly in 2021 – Speaker Alex Maskey

Speaker Alex Maskey hosted the inaugural sitting of the Northern Ireland Youth Assembly on 2 July 2021. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, this historic occasion had to be conducted remotely. 

On 6 November 2021, the Speaker chaired the first in-person Youth Assembly at Parliament Buildings as pictured here. 

  The Youth Assembly consists of 90 young people - aged 13 to 17 - and provides them with the opportunity to discuss and debate important issues relevant to young people in Northern Ireland.

Learning from Our History and Looking to the Future

The Northern Ireland Assembly has frequently faced uncertainty and threats to its stability since its creation. However, governing a society with such a complex history of division, conflict and contrasting political perspectives was never going to be easy.

The current Northern Ireland Assembly represents a vastly different society from when the first Northern Ireland Parliament was created in 1921. The Assembly has played, and will continue to play, a crucial role in building a future for all of the people of Northern Ireland. 

Viewing the Exhibition

There are public tours of Parliament Buildings running at 11.00am and 2.00pm Monday through Friday. You can book tickets for the tours by using the "Book Your Tour" button below.

However, you do not need to be part of a tour to come to Parliament Buildings to view the displays. The building is open to the public from 9:00am to 4:00pm each weekday exluding public and bank holidays.

Public Tours of Parliament Buildings

Useful information for Visitors to Parliament Building

Public
Tours

11.00am and 2.00pm Monday through Friday (excluding Public and Bank holidays). Book your tickets using this link.

Planning your visit to Parliament Buildings

Directions, public transport options, and car parking to help you plan your visit to Parliament Buildings. Follow this link for more information.

Disability
Access

Wheechair access to Parliament Buildings is via ramps at the front, east and west entrances. Parking for blue badge holders is available in the upper car park. Please phone 028 9052 1900 to ensure availability before your visit.