Northern Ireland news

Secretary of State reveals picture of Queen Elizabeth in office after NIO claims portraits were removed

Portraits of British royals have reportedly been removed from Stormont House in Belfast. File picture by Hugh Russell

Secretary of State Julian Smith has revealed there is a portrait of Queen Elizabeth in his office at Stormont House.

Mr Smith was speaking after the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) said it does not display images linked to either of the two main communities following reports that all portraits of the queen had been removed from its Belfast headquarters.

The News Letter reported that portraits of the British monarch had been taken down.

It reported that an unnamed politician said he only noticed landscape paintings when he visited NIO headquarters at Stormont House this week.

The claim comes just weeks after Lord Maginnis, the former Ulster Unionist MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, alleged a senior civil servant was handed £10,000 in compensation because he was offended at having to walk past portraits of the queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.

In a statement, Mr Smith said there is a portrait of the queen in his office and has today tweeted a picture of the photograph.

"I was delighted to see a picture of Her Majesty in my office when I arrived at Stormont House for the first time," he said.

"There are also many pictures and portraits of Her Majesty, the Duke of Edinburgh and other members of the royal family on public display at Hillsborough Castle."

Mr Smith added: "I also recognise the importance of the Northern Ireland Office being an open and inclusive place to work, able to attract highly-skilled people from across all parts of our community in Northern Ireland," he said.

"As an employer in Northern Ireland, the NIO takes its obligations under the Northern Ireland Act and Fair Employment legislation seriously."

Lord Maginnis told the House of Lords earlier this month that compensation over a portrait of the queen was paid following a complaint from the civil servant.

Read More: Queen unveils portrait by Belfast's Colin Davidson

He also claimed the civil servant, who he named under parliamentary privilege, had been consulted on what should replace portraits of the royals.

A government spokesman said yesterday: "The government takes its obligation under fair employment legislation very seriously."

"We will not comment on individual personnel matters," he said.

Ulster Unionist peer, Lord Dennis Rogan, asked the NIO a series of questions about the compensation case including the criteria used to determine which portraits are displayed or removed at Stormont.

NIO minister Lord Ian Duncan said the government could not comment on specific cases.

"In line with the Equality Commission of Northern Ireland's Guide, Promoting a Good and Harmonious Working Environment, the Northern Ireland Office 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," he said.

Read More: Queen Elizabeth says it would have been awkward not to shake Martin McGuinness's hand

"I can confirm that the department takes steps to ensure no such images are displayed in Stormont House."

However, Lord Rogan said the response did not answer his questions.

"All they (the NIO) have done is create more suspicion about their motivations and actions," he said.

"It gives the impression that they have something to hide and would seem to confirm that royal portraits have been removed from Stormont House. This is outrageous. It is political correctness gone mad."

He added: "The NIO is an office of Her Majesty`s Government and to suggest that a portrait of the queen or royal family cannot be displayed within its walls demonstrates how much the mandarins who run the NIO have lost the run of themselves in a foolish attempt to appease republicanism."

Yesterday, UUP leader Robin Swann raised the removal of the queen's portrait from Stormont House with British prime minister Boris Johnson.

Lord Empey, who was among the UUPdelegation, told Press Association: "He immediately looked puzzled and looked around in each direction for some guidance from officials on either side of him. One intervened with a comment about it being a personnel issue.

"He clearly wasn't aware of it ... he was clearly a bit surprised, is how I would put it.

"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."

Lord Empey said he "does not think it is unreasonable" for a portrait of the head of state to hang on the walls of a Government department.

"This case goes back to 2012, it was actually secretary of state Theresa Villiers who was in office when the case was settled, so it's not a new issue, but we made the very simple point that while respecting of course the fact that people here have different identities and aspirations, nevertheless if you are working in a UK Government department, it's not unreasonable to expect to see at some stage a photograph of the head of state," he said.

"Indeed if you go into any American office or an agency anywhere in the States or here, you'll see a photograph of the president and a vice president of the day, and I can imagine there are people who are maybe not terribly comfortable with portraits of President Trump behind them.

"If you go into the Irish embassy in London you see a portrait of President Higgins, and quite rightly.

"So it's not as if there is anything spectacularly new about it, or different, but I'm just making the point, given it's a UK government department, and Stormont House is part of the Northern Ireland Office which is a Whitehall department, I would have thought it not unreasonable that you would expect to see a portrait of the head of state.

"I think many people would have been shocked that the story - which was initially revealed by Lord Maginnis at Parliament, and subsequently by my colleague Lord Rogan, who asked questions and didn't get particularly helpful answers - that this matter has arisen at all. It's rather bizarre, to put it mildly.

"We will be pursing the matter."

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