A House Divided

With notable exceptions (including the old NI Labour Party) Northern Ireland’s politicians have a long history of talking AT each other rather than TO each other. For the first 50 years of the state we had a one-sided parliament, and since then we’ve struggled to have an enduring form of government. The Good Friday Agreement (or Belfast Agreement) of 1998 inspired a new dawn and fresh hope. But the Assembly it created has operated intermittently, with suspensions on five occasions. Thankfully, though, we’ve moved forward hugely since the worst days of the Troubles, which started during my teens.

It was Eamonn Mallie’s idea to have a portrait commissioned, showing all our politicians together. Nothing remotely like this had been done since the state opening of the first NI Parliament in 1921. I’d seen William Conor’s painting many times over the years. I thought it unlikely Eamonn would get the current batch of representatives to agree. But in cahoots with the Assembly Speaker, Lord John Alderdice, the deal was done, and Noel Murphy was the artist commissioned.

I already knew Eamonn well. We’d first met in the early days of Downtown Radio in 1976. Sporting a silk cravat, he blew into the newsroom, relatively fresh from Trinity College, Dublin and journalism training in RTE and BBC, full of enthusiasm and grand plans.

I liked him from the outset but not everyone appreciated his forthrightness and his frequent refusal to take ‘No’ for an answer. Boy, was he persistent! I remember veteran journalist Norman Stockton saying that Eamonn was the only man he knew who could slam revolving doors!

Of course Downtown Radio was also the new kid on the block. I was, and remain, proud to have been the first journalist on the air, reading the station’s opening news bulletin on March 16th, 1976. And reporting on Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s resignation a full hour before BBC Northern Ireland managed to verify it!

Some BBC journalists had smirked at their Downtown rivals, all new to radio – a bunch of newspaper hacks with no broadcasting experience between them. They were sure we’d provide no competition to the great broadcasting institution. Louis Kelly was News Editor. David Sloan from the Belfast Telegraph. Wendy Austin too. And Gary Gillespie from the News Letter. Maggie Taggart and Dick Phillips were there at the start as well.

What we achieved in those opening months quickly wiped the smirks away. Don’t misunderstand me, I love the BBC! And I loved my time working there a few years later. But Downtown changed the face of Northern Ireland Broadcasting.

Eamonn was a key part of that, and he would become one of the most recognisable journalists – in fact one of the most recognisable media faces – covering the politics and the tribal shenanigans of the place.

But back to the Assembly portrait. Eamonn approached John T. Davis and me, asking if we thought there might be a film in following the entire process of the portrait. With Kevin Dawson from RTE supporting the project, we secured a commission. And so, as a former car showroom in Belfast city centre became Noel Murphy’s studio for the next six months, we started filming.

I hadn’t met Noel before. He seemed a gentle, quiet soul completely devoted to his work. I was captivated by his style of painting and remain so to this day. Dr. Ann McVeigh of ArtisAnn gallery near my home in East Belfast told me recently that art historian Amanda Croft describes him as “…a consummate storyteller, myth maker and visual poet.” All of which is evident in this work.

At the time of film’s release a journalist friend wrote: “It proved to be an important journey too for the artist, Noel Murphy. A Catholic from a working class background in west Belfast, in meeting politicians such as Ian Paisley he was meeting the ogres of his childhood. But their face-to-face encounters revealed to him that they have a human side. Indeed he would admit now to being very friendly with Ian Paisley Jr. and Sammy Wilson for example, and that it will make it more difficult in future for him to vote in his ‘…usual sectarian way.’”

Noel’s painting hangs alongside William Conor’s in the Senate Chamber of the NI Assembly at Stormont. The film was also shown nationally in 2007 in BBC’s Storville strand, re-titled Sitting for Parliament.