In September, I asked the Assembly to outline the following to me;
“The total value of stored artefacts, paintings and all other valuables held in storage by the Northern Ireland Assembly, including any past valuations from the past five years. Please include the number of items in total and broken down by item type i.e. painting name, etc.”
The focus of this was to reveal what artwork or artefacts the Assembly held in storage, as apart from those that are on display throughout Parliament Buildings. As someone who previously worked in the building, this was primarily of interest because of the often one-sided use of publicly owned art in Stormont.
We have likely all seen the hanging portraits of former First and Deputy First Ministers during the news, or the sight of the pristine Senate Chamber, complete with throne.
The contents, however, of the stored artwork and artefacts raises the question of why indeed the Assembly continue to hold some of the items given their somewhat controversial nature, and why they have not been sold for the public benefit.
There are eight items currently in storage, with a valuation undertaken in 2013 placing these at £35,500 in total.
Three artefacts are valued at £24,000, these are;
Carved and painted model of Parliament Buildings centre section: £8,000.00
Table with map of six counties by Sir James Milner Barbour 1935: £10,000.00
A carved and gilded throne chair upholstered in red velvet: £6,000.00
Yes, you read correctly, the Assembly has a £6,000 throne in storage as well as what is no doubt a very expensive table.
The awkward nature of the items does not stop there. Paintings of an illustrious former Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland are amongst the pieces, costing £2,000 as well as a portrait of Lord Craigavon valued at £3,000.
However, the most questionable holding of these pieces, seemingly hidden away from the public though owned by them, is a portrait of Sir Henry Wilson MP, valued at £1,500 and completed by H.W. Gates.
Sir Henry might be better known to followers of Irish history as a chief protagonist in the Curragh mutiny, where the Army refused to coerce Ulster into Home Rule. Michael Collins referred to Wilson as “a violent Orange partisan” and he was later made a security advisor to the new Northern Ireland Government – in other words, he was anything but a liberal or supporter of equality in Ireland.
Why then, does the current Assembly and the parties therein permit such a divisive piece of art to be held in trust for the public in storage? Surely in this new era of devolved government following the New Start initiative, this piece of history should be sold by the Assembly and the proceeds used for some public good?
This required further consideration, especially when we take into consideration that all of these pieces are valued at a total of £35,500, but the cost of storing them over the last five years comes to a staggering £45,394.40.