Faith Matters

College marks historic link to first parliament

The Presbyterian Church has a unique 100-year-old link to the first Northern Ireland parliament

Assembly's College - today's Union Theological College - was the first home of the Northern Ireland parliament 100 years ago. Picture by Hugh Russell

ALTHOUGH the official opening of the first Northern Ireland parliament took place 100 years ago this week at Belfast City Hall, it didn't sit there.

Instead, it met a mile away in the south of the city at the Assembly's College building on Botanic Avenue.

This was the home of the Presbyterian Church's theological training college, and the arrangement with the fledgling parliament lasted for the 11 years it took for Parliament Buildings at Stormont to open.

Union Theological College, as it is known today, has created an online exhibition - at union.ac.uk - to commemorate its part in the events of 100 years ago.

It includes letters from Sir James Craig, Northern Ireland's first prime minister, requesting the possibility of using the building, to the negotiations around an appropriate annual rent, which would facilitate the relocation of the College and enable the training of the Church's ministers to continue. Handwritten minutes of meetings, photographs, newspaper reports and other letters can also be viewed.

James Craig's letter to the Presbyterian Church enquiring about the possibility of the new parliament sitting in Assembly's College for "three years or so"; it in fact took 11 years before a new permanent building was constructed

Joy Conkey, librarian of the College's first floor Gamble Library - where the parliament's House of Commons sat - has compiled the exhibition.

"Most people would associate Northern Ireland's parliament with the impressive building at Stormont, the home of the current Assembly," she said.

"But very few people probably know that for the first decade of its life, while Stormont was being built, parliament met here.

"While there is an elegant wooden plaque above the main college entrance that marks the fact, unless you looked up as you left, you probably wouldn't see it."

The College Chapel on the ground floor was remodelled to accommodate the first Northern Ireland senate.

A discreet plaque above the entrance marks the role Assembly's College played in the first 11 years of the parliament

"I really hope people will find it interesting, as it offers a fascinating behind the scenes insight into a period of time in the life of our College, but also the history of Northern Ireland itself," said Ms Conkey.

Sir James Craig wrote on May 2 1921 making a "tentative" inquiry "to ascertain whether the College could be made available for use as our new Parliament House".

Another letter dated June 16 points out that the government was willing to pay a "generous rent... enough to enable us to take good premises for our Class Rooms adjacent to the University... perhaps also for boarding our Students..."

The College eventually negotiated an annual rent of £8,000 - around £400,000 today - which was higher than the government's original proposal.

The parliament met for the first time on September 20 1921 and left Assembly's College on July 31 1932; students returned to the building in October.

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