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Stormont Estate

Part of Adjournment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 7:30 pm on 19th January 2016.

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Photo of Sammy Douglas Sammy Douglas DUP 7:30 pm, 19th January 2016

I am pleased to participate in the debate tonight on the Stormont estate. I thank my colleague Robin Newton for securing it. I thank you, Mr Speaker, for attending. I also thank the Minister. I think that this is his first Adjournment debate, and I wish him well in his new role.

I was first elected four and a half years ago. In the first couple of years, I hosted a number of community and voluntary groups and senior citizens groups at Stormont. Very often, I asked how many of them had been to the Stormont estate and Building. For most of them, it was their first opportunity to come here. For many years, the estate, to be quite honest, was the preserve of the chosen few. Thankfully, that is changing. Over the past couple of years, a growing number of people have been coming into the estate. As I say, it is sad that many of those people, quite a number of whom are from east Belfast, have never been into this Building or on the estate. We need to look at how we encourage people to come along.

I commend the Events Office on the tours that it runs. It does an excellent job, and I am sure that the Minister will confirm the growing numbers coming to the Building and associating with the estate. While I understand the need to safeguard and preserve this wonderful Building and the majestic natural environment of woodland and parkland, I nonetheless believe that we should support well-managed events and encourage more visitors. I make that point because, in one sense, as my colleague Chris Lyttle said, the estate belongs to the people. We tend to forget that we are the custodians of the estate. It does not belong to Members of the Assembly. I sometimes host events up here and say to people, "It is great to see you here". A lot of people say to me, "It is wonderful. Thank you for inviting us up here". I tell them that this place belongs to them; it belongs to the people. Let us not forget that.

On a negative note, last summer, one of my constituents was getting married, and her father contacted me and asked whether she could use Stormont Castle as a backdrop for photographs. To be quite honest, I came up against a brick wall. It was impossible to get agreement from a range of sources just to get a couple up here in a car to take a few photographs for 10 or 15 minutes. Eventually, I succeeded, and I pay tribute to Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, who helped to get an agreement all round. I think that that was the first wedding at which a bride and bridegroom were able to get their photographs taken up here. That is a shame. Why are we blocking people from coming to take photographs for 10 minutes? I understand about security and all that, but that family was willing to pay to come in.

Maybe the Minister will look to see whether we can be a bit more flexible when people want to use the castle for wedding photographs.

The reality is that many people, as was said, use this place. Let me just quote a user. I read this earlier today from someone who uses this Building. It was not my colleague Robin Newton. She said:

"I walk Stormont grounds at least three times a week and never get bored. The trees, squirrels and magpies are fantastic."

He never mentioned the magpies.

"The water lying under the trees at this time of year looks so beautiful and the kids love the play park. Excellent sleighing when snow comes."

That is such a lovely quote. I found another lovely quote on TripAdvisor from someone who has been to the estate:

"Had a wonderful tour before Christmas, and loved it! The grounds are beautiful, and the views amazing. Well worth a visit!"

Now, that is TripAdvisor telling the rest of the world, "Come to Stormont". There is a great opportunity to add value through tourism. We are promoting tourism right across Northern Ireland and beyond.

Let me quote just a few figures from the EastSide Arts Festival, a local initiative with many volunteers. One of the events that I hosted here with the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment was for 100 out-of-state visitors, people from all over the world, coming to east Belfast and Stormont. The main speaker was from New Zealand. Also part of the EastSide Arts Festival, I am sure we all remember the Live on Cyprus Avenue event with Van Morrison. Using feedback from surveys and comment cards, the average stay in Northern Ireland for those attending the event — and many came from the Republic of Ireland, Great Britain and internationally — was 7·2 days per person. Visitors came from 19 countries, so we had people from across the world coming up here. I mention that because there is an opportunity for us to add value and link in to other tourist events and to promote tourism.

I think it was my colleague Robin Newton who said that visitors who come to the Stormont Hotel might want to go out and visit Titanic Belfast or go to the Giant's Causeway, which is a lovely part of the world. It is good to do all those trips, but, if you are like me or from overseas, some days you just want to get out, go for a nice walk, clear your head and just sit and relax. Nearly 10,000 visitors locally came to the EastSide Arts Festival, and many of them came here. There were nearly 2,000 from the rest of Northern Ireland, and nearly 4,000 from Great Britain and overseas. Let us see where we can explore opportunities to build on what we have already done here and encourage people to use this beautiful Building.

Some Members mentioned some of the events and activities that have taken place here, but nobody mentioned that wonderful day — and who could forget it? — on 27 June 2012, when 20,000 ticket holders converged on the estate to see Her Majesty the Queen in all her splendour. The reason I get excited is that we have such a wonderful asset, but let us not hide our light under a bushel.

As I mentioned, a huge number of people have never had the pleasure of coming through those gates. My dream would be to see the Northern Ireland football team this summer coming through those gates — and I am sure the Member opposite would like to see the Republic of Ireland football team coming through those gates — on an open-top bus driving up the Prince of Wales avenue with the European Championship. What a dream come true.

Some people mentioned other events, but if we go back to 1998, who can forget Sir Elton John coming to Stormont? I think it was well-managed. There are difficulties about noise pollution with neighbours, and we have had discussions with neighbours over the years, including my colleague Robin Newton as one of our Stormont neighbours. I would like to see similar events here in the future. On the way out of the Chamber, my colleague Gordon Dunne said, "Don't forget to mention the Circuit of Ireland Rally, because it comes up here". That was a great event. I understand the problems with crowd control, but let us get those events well managed. I am delighted that my colleague brought the topic to the House, and I support the Minister in some of the ideas that have been raised tonight.