The Speaker of the Assembly – Sinn Fein’s Mitchel McLaughlin – made the controversial decision this week not to include the National Anthem at Stormont’s annual remembrance ceremony, it has been revealed.
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said after the event on Wednesday morning that the spontaneous rendition of the National Anthem was “regrettable” as nationalists in attendance at the Stormont service felt “ambushed”.
Although the National Anthem was not included on the order of service this year – as is tradition – several unionists began singing God Save The Queen as soon as it concluded, to the obvious embarrassment of the nationalist representatives who were still on their feet.
Mr Nesbitt could be heard on television footage immediately afterwards apologising to some of the Sinn Fein delegation.
Sinn Fein MLA Carál Ní Chuilín branded the singing – led by TUV press officer Sammy Morrison before some fellow unionists joined in – a “childish stunt”.
Attending the service along with her party colleague Martin McGuinness, the deputy first minister, she claimed a “small group of unionists” started singing “in an attempt to embarrass those in attendance”.
Ms Ni Chuilin described the service as “respectful and inclusive,” but said some unionists “chose to disrespect the spirit of the event” with the unannounced singing of the national Anthem.
“The event itself, led by Assembly Speaker Mitchel McLaughlin, received wide support from right across the political spectrum,” she said.
“I welcome the fact that other unionist representatives came to me to express their anger and disappointment at how the civic remembrance event had been disrespected.”
Yesterday UUP leader Mr Nesbitt faced an extended grilling on BBC Talkback about his decision to apologise to Sinn Fein afterwards.
He stood by his apology and branded the singing “a stunt”.
Clarifying his actions, Mr Nesbitt said: “There were a number of nationalists and republicans that were blindsided and I did say ‘sorry for your trouble’. I don’t think that should have happened.
“And by the way I am not the only unionist who had those sentiments after the service but I am probably the only one who is fronting up and admitting it publicly.”
Asked if he apologised for the National Anthem or for the stunt, he said: “I am in no doubt it was a stunt and it was a deliberate attack because some people didn’t like the presence of other people at the ceremony. It was a stunt and I said I am sorry that there was a stunt.”
Last night the News Letter discovered the decision had been taken by Sinn Fein MLA and Speaker of the House Mr McLaughlin – who led the ceremony.
An Assembly spokeswoman said: “As in other parliamentary institutions, keynote events are hosted and organised by the Speaker who determines the arrangements.
“Previous Speakers had continued with the format of the pre-existing civil service event in the Senate Chamber jointly with the head of the civil service.”
The spokeswoman added: “Last year, the current Speaker, as Principal Deputy Speaker, hosted an Act of Remembrance in the Great Hall to ensure the two-minute silence was marked on November 11 itself.
“On November 2 this year, the Speaker wrote to all MLAs outlining his intentions to build on that as the Assembly opportunity for remembrance and set out his aims to achieve as many people as possible marking remembrance in the Great Hall, the heart of Parliament Buildings, for the first time.
“The Speaker is happy to engage to build on the positive aspects of this event.”
Mr McLaughlin, 70, announced this week that he will not be seeking re-election at the next Stormont election.
Responding to confirmation that it was the Speaker’s decision, a UUP spokesman said: “The Speaker did indeed write to all MLAs but his two-sided letter omitted to mention the very important fact that he intended to drop the National Anthem from this year’s commemorations. We support the principle of a fully inclusive service of remembrance but not at any price.”
DUP MLA Brenda Hale said: “Whilst the current Speaker’s intentions may have been positive, it is undoubtedly the case that the decision to remove the National Anthem caused controversy. Such controversy only serves to distract from what the real focus of remembrance should be.”
TUV leader Jim Allister said: “In making his disgraceful and insulting decision, did the Sinn Fein Speaker consult the Principal Deputy Speaker (Robin Newton, DUP) and, indeed the other Deputy Speakers (SDLP and UUP)? We need to hear from them. It seems political and anti-British, anti-Royal animus ruled the day with the Sinn Fein Speaker that the DUP voted into action. Clearly, they didn’t even make the integrity of the remembrance event a price of their support.”
Ukip leader in Northern Ireland David McNarry MLA said: “Before he made his pathetic apology yesterday to Martin McGuinness, did Mike Nesbitt sing the National Anthem?”