Speaker hosts St Patrick's Day event at Parliament Buildings

Session: Session currently unavailable

Date: 16 March 2016

Reference: SO 19/15/16

The Speaker of the Assembly, Mitchel McLaughlin MLA is hosting an event in Parliament Buildings today to mark St Patrick's Day, with performances of music, dance, song and storytelling.

Speaker McLaughlin said: "Good evening. It is my pleasure to welcome you all tonight for an evening of entertainment, conversation and friendship.

"It is traditional for the Speaker to hold an annual event to mark St Patrick's Day. This year it falls at the end of what has been a busy time before the Assembly formally dissolves on the 29th of March for the May elections.

"In 2015, the St Patrick's event was my first real opportunity to outline my priorities as Speaker. This year this St Patrick's celebration is the last major event which I will host as Speaker before I retire in May.

"Last year, I emphasised my intention for "respect" to be the underlying theme of my time in office. In that time, the phrase "respect, a first step" has sat underneath my signature on my correspondence. For me, building respect and understanding is a first step towards the reconciliation and healing which has to be our goal.

"So while I don't want to keep you for too long from the great performances ahead, I want to take a few minutes to set out some small examples which have personally meant a lot to me. I see them as positive indicators that we are taking small steps forward.

"Last September, I held an event entitled "One Assembly, Many Peoples" celebrating those who have come to live here and have enriched our culture. As I have said repeatedly over the past twelve months, if this community was ever solely orange and green, it certainly is not now. We are the better for it. So in marking St Patrick's Day this year I have deliberately sought to do it with an event which goes beyond the traditional and reflects the diversity of our contemporary community and the cultures within it, both in the performances and the guest list. This Assembly is here for all of you.

"In November, I presided over a debate of the Northern Ireland Youth Congress in the Assembly Chamber. While discussing five different issues, they selected mental health as their priority after listening to moving personal testimonies from among their membership. It was a supportive and uplifting atmosphere in a way rarely seen in an Assembly debate. I said in the Assembly Chamber yesterday, we have a new generation coming on to the electoral register who have grown up through the peace process. We have every reason to believe that they will be a positive influence on our politics but we all need to support them.

"I spoke last year about the need for our modern community to be reflected in the artwork in this building. We have made some good progress on that with the portraits of Heaney and Lewis celebrating two local icons but with other initiatives too. The exhibition currently hanging around you in this Great Hall was produced by students at the School of Art in Ulster University who were challenged to depict their perceptions of this building and Assembly. Two weeks ago, each of the students explained their work to me. The results not only made the point about the different reactions this building can inspire but it also symbolises the role of this Assembly to encourage new and upcoming talent for our future. I hope the Assembly looks at how we could go further with such initiatives.

"The level of female representation in the Assembly compared to the majority of the population is the starkest example of how the Assembly fails to properly represent and respect the community. Assembly Women's Week last week was a greater success than I could have imagined. While women will still be under-represented in the next Assembly, I believe we will surpass the current record of the 23 female MLAs serving in the Assembly. That will be a further step towards where we need to be and parties are now in no doubt that gender has to be an active consideration in their selections. Progress in this area will open the door to addressing the lack of representation of other groups in the Assembly. The more perspectives and backgrounds the Assembly contains, regardless of party, the better it can do its job to scrutinise policy and legislation for the benefit of this entire community.

"Yesterday, for the first time in our plenary proceedings we provided a signer for a statement by the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure on sign language legislation. It stood as an example of how small changes can make a major statement that this Assembly is serious about engaging with everyone in our work.

"Exploring our shared history has featured throughout my time in office. This week I hosted a lecture in this building with a mature discussion on the centenary of the Easter Rising. Think about that in the context that it was fifteen years ago this Easter that this Assembly was recalled to debate the display of Easter lilies in 2001. I want to personally express my thanks for the welcome which was always given to me at a range of First World War commemorations. The reception I hosted here for the Royal British Legion a few weeks ago was a gesture of my appreciation. We will only increase understanding by supporting each other through unfamiliar surroundings or uncomfortable conversations. However, we are taking tiny but significant steps and there are many showing courageous leadership in this field in their local communities who need our praise.

"I have been determined to use the independence and impartiality of the office of Speaker to represent every Member of this Assembly. I have attempted to reach out to as many different parts of this community as I practically could.

"It is of course impossible to please all of the people all of the time. As Members of the new Assembly elect my successor in May, I encourage them to think about the challenge they are giving to the new Speaker. It encapsulates the challenge facing our society. In any parliamentary body, the Speaker acts as a single figurehead representing the whole institution. Amidst the range of political differences in this Assembly, it is a constant tightrope.

"So while some were uncomfortable with my decision to take up the position of President of the Assembly branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, others were dissatisfied with my inclusive approach to Armistice Day.

"The Speaker has to balance all the different traditions they are here to represent without simply deferring to their own individual background. From the impartiality of the Office, the Speaker does not have the luxury open to other Members of being able to just cater for one perspective or advocating the approach which would go down better in one political audience or another.

"My time in this Office has underlined that if we want to move forward, and together, particularly at key moments, we do need to be thoughtful and reasonable in our expectations. If we all insist that everything we do has to be exactly to our own personal preferences and values, then we will inevitably end up doing them only with people of the same views. If we take that approach every time a sensitive decision is required then different parts of our community will forever do things in isolation. Is that the future we want?

"I know coming together often requires a lot of heart searching in many sections of society. For many, it may be impossible because of what they have been through. Many of us, including me, hold our individual politics, culture and identity dearly and close to our hearts. However, if we insist on wearing it on our sleeves, if we expect it to be delivered 100% in every debate and every event, then we are condemning ourselves to a place where agreement isn't possible, where reconciliation isn't possible. Alternatively, it might just be a sign of confidence in your own beliefs if you are open to listening to and respecting different viewpoints.

"So I hope the new Speaker will receive the support which I have received when having to confront the challenge of how to represent this diverse community. The suggestions which will be most useful to them will be the ones which take account of more than just one political view and aim for inclusivity.

"In my office, I have constantly spoken to the team about the need to stretch ourselves. We heard that term a lot more during previous negotiations but it is even more relevant now. The need to stretch ourselves does not stop at reaching agreement, nor is it just restricted to political divisions. It is a constant need of leadership and this society requires each part of our society to be mindful of the other. So do we still have difficulties left to resolve and will there be more ahead? Undoubtedly yes but let us remember that shouting loudest might mean you are heard but it doesn't mean people listen. Listening, responding and respecting will move us much further forward.

"I am looking forward to retirement from this Assembly. There is no doubt that there are some areas on which I have not had time to make progress, particularly on Assembly procedures. However, it has been an absolute privilege to have spent my last months here as Speaker and to use it to engage with people across the community.

"I mentioned earlier that we have a new younger generation coming forward who will replace people like me. It is our responsibility to pass them the baton but not the baggage which we have carried. There is huge potential ahead but it falls on all of us to encourage it."


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