Presbyterian Church to mark links with NI’s parliament with online exhibition

The Irish Presbyterian Church is to acknowledge its significant role in housing the first parliament in Northern Ireland with a special event at Assembly College in south Belfast in September.

By Billy Kennedy
Saturday, 10th July 2021, 7:25 am
Union Theological College
Union Theological College

The event is part of a series to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland acknowledging that Assembly College housed the parliament for 11 years after King George V opened the legislature on June 22, 1921.

Union Theological College, as Assembly College is known today, has created a special online exhibition to mark the centenary. It uses the college’s own archive material to relate how uniquely a church college became a home to a parliament. Online visitors can read letters from Sir James Craig, Northern Ireland’s first prime minister, requesting the possibility of using the building.

Sir James called for negotiations around an appropriate annual rent, which would facilitate relocation of the college and enable the training of the church’s ministers to continue - the principal role of the college to this day. Handwritten minutes of meetings, photographs, reports from newspapers, including the Belfast News Letter, and other letters can also be viewed.

Joy Conkey, librarian of the College’s Gamble library, and creator of the online exhibition, explained that it is a history few know about.

“Most people would associate Northern Ireland’s parliament with the impressive building at Stormont, home of the current Northern Ireland Assembly. But very few people probably know that for the first decade of its life, while Stormont was being built, parliament met here,” she said.

The Government of Ireland Act 1920 established a ‘Parliament for Northern Ireland’ and a ‘Parliament for Southern Ireland’, based on the two-chamber Westminster model. The Gamble library at Assembly’s College became the home of the Northern Ireland House of Commons, while the college chapel on the ground floor, was remodelled to accommodate the parliament’s upper chamber, the Northern Ireland Senate.

Northern Ireland’s first prime minister Sir James Craig made a tentative inquiry in a letter on May 2, 1921 “to ascertain whether the College could be made available for use as ‘our new Parliament House’”, Agreement was reached and the parliament’s first sitting was in September that year.

The College negotiated an annual rent of £8,000, equivalent of nearly £402,000 today, higher than what the fledgling government had originally proposed.