Unionists in Northern Ireland reacted with fury today after pictures of the Queen were reportedly been banned from a Government office in Belfast to avoid offending nationalists.
DUP leader Arlene Foster raised the matter with new Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith, with the party branding it ‘madness’ on the day Boris Johnson visited the country for the first time as Prime Minister.
Portraits of Elizabeth II have been removed from the Northern Ireland Office’s (NIO) Stormont base, local paper the Newsletter reported.
The alleged move came after a peer told the House of Lords a fortnight ago that the department paid £10,000 to Lee Hegarty, who had been working there for around 20 years at the time, after he used human rights legislation to claim it was unfair for him to have to work with her pictures around him.
East Londonderry DUP MP Gregory Campbell demanded that the pictures be ‘reinstated forthwith’.
‘The idea that someone would be offended by a portrait of Her Majesty The Queen is ludicrous,’ he said.
‘It is equally ludicrous that the headquarters of Her Majesty’s Government in Northern Ireland cannot display as many pictures of the Queen as they like.
‘This is madness. It is just another attempt to erode British identity in this part of the United Kingdom.’
Boris Johnson speaking to reporters after arriving at Stormont during his first visit to Northern Ireland as Prime Minister today
The Queen and the then deputy first minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness, a former IRA commander, admire a portrait of the monarch in London in 2016
Last week NIO minister Lord Duncan told peers that the NIO ‘is sensitive to the display of ”posters, pictures, portraits or other displays that are more closely associated with one or other of the communities” and will consider any concerns raised by employees’ in Northern Ireland.
He added: ‘I can confirm that the department takes steps to ensure no such images are displayed in Stormont House.’
Mr Johnson visited Stormont for talks with Northern Irish political leaders today.
Ulster Unionist peer Lord Empey said Mr Johnson looked ‘puzzled’ when he raised the matter at the meeting.
‘He clearly wasn’t aware of it … he was clearly a bit surprised, is how I would put it,’ the Northern Irish politician said.
‘There was no definitive response from him but the matter has been squarely laid on the table and we shall see what emerges.
‘I think both he and the new Secretary of State will be on a steep learning curve to understand the nuances of Northern Ireland.’
Jim Allister, the leader of Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) party, said the move was ‘shameful’.
‘This craven appeasement, under the guise of a distorted approach to ‘equality’, is a calculated kick in the teeth to the majority community in Northern Ireland and a flagrant contradiction of the status of the office as a department of Her Majesty’s Government,’ he said.
East Londonderry DUP MP Gregory Campbell demanded that the pictures be ‘reinstated forthwith’
‘Stormont House is a political office, as its use in the political talks and hosting of all major political meetings demonstrates.
‘The ”justification”, for example, of a portrait of IRA commander McGuinness in the Parliament Buildings is that they are political premises. The same should apply to Stormont House, but instead we get a spineless climb down.’
Mr Hegarty’s payout was exposed by former Ulster Unionist party MP Lord Maginnis two weeks ago, as he spoke in the House of Lords during a debate on the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill.
Lord Maginnis, using the episode to criticise both the Northern Ireland Office and the Conservative Government, also revealed that the portraits had been removed and that one was replaced with a photograph of the Queen shaking hands in Belfast with Martin McGuinness, the late Sinn Féin deputy first minister.
He told the Lords: ‘Mr Lee Hegarty was consulted on what should replace them. He suggested that the portrait of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh be removed and that photographs of – at best – the Queen meeting people during engagements in Northern Ireland be put in their place.’
The ‘scandalous episode’ was exposed by former Ulster Unionist party MP Lord Maginnis as he spoke in the House of Lords during a debate on the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill
Lord Maginnis also revealed that Mr Hegarty had now gone on to secure a position at the Northern Ireland Parades Commission, a body that has angered unionists by banning and redirecting marches.
He noted that he did not mind the use of a picture of the Queen shaking hands with Martin McGuinness, but said he was annoyed that the case had been settled in secret and a sum of £10,000 handed over ‘presumably for hurt feelings and distress.’
He added: ‘This settlement was signed off by the then secretary of state Theresa Villiers MP on the recommendation, I’m informed, of her parliamentary secretary Jonathan Stevens.’
Mr Johnson clashed with Sinn Fein in tense talks as he was accused of being ‘complacent’ about the peace process.
On his first visit to Northern Ireland, the PM said he would honour the ‘letter and spirit’ of the Good Friday Agreement as he pushes through the UK’s departure from the EU.
One of the portraits was replaced with a photograph of the Queen shaking hands in Belfast with Martin McGuinness, the late Sinn Féin deputy first minister
But he faces fury after again insisting that Brexit must happen by the end of October, with or without a deal.
Speaking after her discussions with Mr Johnson, Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said he viewed the island of Ireland as ‘collateral damage’ and warned that a referendum on reunification was looming.
‘There is no doubt that Boris Johnson’s first priority coming to Ireland is his interest, Tory interest, British interests, as he sees them, and it seems to me that he is quite complacent at the idea of Ireland being the collateral damage,’ she said.
Mr Johnson has held four hours of talks with the province’s political leaders at Stormont as he tried to break the deadlock that has crashed powersharing.
As he arrived for the meetings this morning, Mr Johnson said he would be appealing for the parties to restore the powersharing executive – which collapsed more than two years ago.