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Stormont Estate

Part of Adjournment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 6:45 pm on 19th January 2016.

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Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP 6:45 pm, 19th January 2016

Mr Speaker, I thank you for being here this evening. I know that you had other choices that you could have made, so I am grateful to you. I also thank the Minister for staying behind for an Adjournment debate, given the pressures that he has been under today, the very serious matters that have been debated in relation to the Budget and the time that he was in the Chamber. I am grateful to him for staying behind to talk about what is essentially a constituency matter — or at least that is how it is perceived. However, I do not believe that the use of Stormont estate is something that can be confined to east Belfast. I believe that it is a jewel in the crown of east Belfast, Belfast and Northern Ireland as a whole.

I want to pay tribute to the ground staff and the rangers who look after the estate. I pay tribute to their skill, knowledge of the estate and commitment. As a frequent user of the estate, I have spoken to them and know that, for many of them, the commitment to the work that they do goes beyond just doing their daily job. It is something that they have a fondness for. Indeed, the grounds are an asset and a feature of our life, certainly in Belfast. They contribute in many ways to the quality of life in this locale.

I will say a few things about the history, the potential and the uniqueness of the grounds. I do not think that there are any other seats of a Government that have such a magnificent setting. Nor do I believe that there are any other seats of a Government that have been attributed green flag status, which reflects the park-type quality of these grounds. However, I believe that more could be done to fully realise the potential of the Stormont estate. I recognise that this is a working estate. It is where people come five days a week — some of them, six days a week — to do business. It is also a through-traffic estate. Sometimes, it is like a huge car park, given the nature and the interest of what is on in the Chamber.

Let us reflect on the fact that, when the Assembly got under way, we did not have the opening up of Parliament Buildings as we do today. That we have that today is in many ways thanks to the work of the Speaker's Office. It is very much about the professional way in which the educational unit deals with our schoolchildren. Those tours and the educational work contribute very much to the well-being, the feeling and the use of the Building — to an aspect of life in Northern Ireland.

I will take what is happening inside the Building and reflect on what might happen on the outside of the Building in the grounds of the estate. We all know about the history and features of the site, or we should do.

Mr Douglas and I were at a meeting on Friday night. I have been surprised at the interest that the title "Use of the Stormont Estate" has had. It was raised with us on Friday night. When asking how many people could identify features of the grounds, only two out of a group of 40 had any real knowledge of the grounds of Stormont. These grounds contain many historical features. How many people know about Craigavon's tomb being in the grounds of Stormont? There are not that many. How many people know about the bomb site, where the German bombers got closest to bombing this place? How many people have actually looked at it and reflected on that?

Carson's statue is the dominant feature of the estate, but how many people know about the Reconciliation statue and its history? Although it is featured in publications put out by the Assembly, how many people know that it was originally created as the sculpture of a man and woman embracing across barbed wire to depict the inspiration for peace? The sculpture was originally conceived in the aftermath of the war. How many people know about that statue and its impact and importance in not only a Northern Ireland context but a much wider context?

The wildlife on the estate is also important. It presents an opportunity for our schoolchildren and the Scouts, the Boys Brigade, the Girl Guides and all those types of organisations. The wildlife includes a wide variety of birds. An otter was spotted on the estate recently. Work is being done to protect the red squirrels on the estate. All of this is of interest to young people as part of their education, whether in school or youth groups. There are also the strawberry trees, the flora and the most predominant feature, the line of trees up the mile, which are now around 80 years of age.

We can also look at the importance of The Gleaner statue. It stands nearly as a contrast. The Gleaner sculpture is by John Knox — I do not think that is the John Knox of Protestant historical importance — who originally exhibited it as part of the 1951 Festival of Britain. The sculpture shows a woman on bended knee gathering, with the inscription:

"Thrift is the gleaner behind all human effort".

It has been there since 1951, having come from that exhibition. We are now in 2016, which has importance from many perspectives. How many people, whether formally or informally, visit the Battle of the Somme granite stone that is placed with a group of six cedar trees and bears the following inscription?

"This group of cedars presented in memory of the 36th Ulster Division by Major General Sir C. Herbert Powell K.C.B. who raised it in 1914".

That is a significant feature of the history of this Province.

There are many important aspects.

Turning to the Mo Mowlam Children's Park, I did not agree with a lot of Ms Mowlam's politics, but she has left a legacy in the Estate in what she created in terms of the trails through it, the wooded areas and the forest trail behind this Building. In creating the playground, she created what is probably the best playground in the whole of Northern Ireland. Obviously, it was done to meet the international standards that the European Union demands of children's playgrounds today. The playground is locked up at a certain time each night. Maybe, under certain circumstances, it has to be locked up each night. I encourage as many children as possible to use it. It has also the potential for organisational use, be it by groups of Scouts, Cubs, the Boys' Brigade or local schools. It is a very safe environment, it is attractive, and it is well out of the way of all traffic. In fact, it could not be safer.

I spoke earlier about the interest; people stopped me on the Estate and in the corridor and asked, "What do you mean by the 'use of the Stormont Estate?'". I joked with them: I said, "Well, we need to measure the number of dogs coming in and going out; they should all be chipped. Only people with dogs that have been registered with the council should be allowed in". Obviously, there has been some controversy about dog walking. We created the feature referred to as the bullring for dogs to be exercised.

We have this jewel in the crown — this asset — sitting on our doorstep. We need to compare it with the use of the Building and the super work being done on the tours and the educational facility. We need to benchmark it against that internal work and see what we can do about bringing a greater interest to it. Who would be interested? I think that the general public would be interested. I live in close proximity to the site and walk here during the summer months. The number of foreign visitors you meet in these grounds is amazing. Much of that is because there is an international hotel on the other side of the road. In the summertime, at 6.00 pm, 7.00 pm or 8.00 pm, the grounds are still open, and visitors staying in the hotel walk the grounds. You frequently get an opportunity to speak with them. They are all extremely complimentary, but there is nothing that allows them to have a proper guided tour of the facility. Since those are the circumstances, there is the potential for us to do more in that sense.

I have already referred to the wildlife, the trees, the flora and the fauna that is all there for the likes of youth groups, the Boys' Brigade or schoolchildren doing their academic qualifications. It is also there just for children to be allowed formally to enjoy the site. Many groups of children come to enjoy the site.

We know that there has been a history of large concerts on the site. Initially, when Mo Mowlam started them, one in particular was so controversial that I got 300 letters of objection to it. We moved away from that and learned a lesson, and subsequent concerts have not been controversial. I am not talking about that kind of major event; I am talking about events that would not annoy the neighbours or bring any form of disruption to the area. I am not talking about promoting large events; I am talking about small groups using the site.

I will finish with this, Mr Speaker: the grounds are an asset. They add to the work of the Assembly and the opening up of Parliament Buildings. They allow for the promotion of the Assembly and, in many ways, goodwill and identification. It may be — I only use the words "may be" — that the grounds have the potential to create a small number of jobs as well. They certainly have the potential to add to our tourism and visitor offering, and they have the ability to add to the quality of life for those who live in the locale.

The site is a feature that, I believe, we are all rightly proud of. I finish by paying tribute to the excellent work that is done by the grounds staff. Let just me mention, Mr Speaker —