Stormont needs to deliver, not look good

Posted By: October 08, 2016

Patrick Murphy. Irish News (Belfast). Saturday, October 8, 2016

What can Stormont’s new executive press secretary do to improve its image and reputation? The question arises following another bad publicity week for the executive and its recent creation of a new job to provide “specialist communications advice” for Stormont’s “new political framework”.

Roughly translated, that means that much of the publicity about Stormont is less than favorable and the executive would like someone to improve it – or, failing that, to distance the  executive from Stormont’s negative image.

So what has gone wrong with an institution, which was re-launched in 2007 with widespread public support and remarkably positive media coverage? Why has its image plummeted and can a new press secretary, however, experienced and talented, make a difference?

It would appear that, over the past nine years, Stormont has increasingly suffered from three self-inflicted injuries: style, content and a failure to deliver.

A press secretary can certainly change the executive’s style, which many see as arrogant and secretive. It was unnecessarily aggressive in responding to criticism for secretly using the royal prerogative to create the new post.

It mocked the powerlessness of the opposition and suggested that parties were “trying to throw dirt”. The justification for its decision was that “ministers have made clear more normalized processes of conducting business will apply”. (I have no idea what that means. Do you?)

The theme of overriding arrogance continued this week when the executive offered insult instead of explanation and abstentionism instead of engagement. When the SDLP queried the allocation of £1.7 million from the Social Investment Fund (SIF) to a UDA-linked community group, the executive attacked the SDLP. It did not explain how the SIF’s aim of tackling deprivation could be achieved by an organization linked to the UDA (which some might regard as contributing to deprivation).

When the opposition parties then queried government transparency and accountability, all executive ministers stayed outside the chamber, displaying a remarkable contempt for normal parliamentary debate between government and opposition. A new press secretary might quietly advise that the executive’s approach is merely strengthening the public image of a hitherto poorly organized opposition.

Putting a positive spin on the content of executive decision-making will prove more challenging. Stormont’s recent history has seen a litany of scandals: party and individual expense claims; “inappropriate” awarding of contracts; collective amnesia on Nama’s knock-down sale of northern properties and the use of petitions of concern 115 times in five years (as revealed by the including three occasions in which ministers faced reprimand.

At the same time there has been unnecessary secrecy in decision-making (as evidenced by repeated failure to answer Freedom of Information requests), an inability to plan ahead (as illustrated by poorly prepared programs for the government) and a general aura of incompetence (the Casement Park saga).

These failings have persisted even though the Executive has some competent ministers. For example, Michelle O’Neill in health and Michelle McIlveen in agriculture are dedicated and determined in their work. Despite that, there is an increasing lack of faith in, and respect for, the ethics and efficacy of Stormont as an institution.

The biggest challenge lies in putting a positive spin on Stormont’s failure to deliver in areas such as poverty and social deprivation. Financial handouts to the politically hand-picked is not the way to build a better society. Mere words, however carefully crafted, cannot disguise that injustice.

Finally, the new press secretary must recognize that not all of Stormont’s problems come from inside Stormont. Some criticism is based on politics rather than policies. For many Nationalists, Stormont symbolizes a failure to deliver on Irish unity.

While Unionists are happy at having won the battle over the partition, many on the nationalist side are increasingly disillusioned. For example, speaking in Tyrone’s traditional republican heartland of Galbally last week, former hunger-striker, Tommy McKearney, described Stormont as “venial, futile, powerless”.

It will take more than a press secretary to change that sentiment or to offset the reaction of some to Sinn Féin’s attendance at the Ulster (Six County?) Fry at the Conservative Party Conference. Executive funding for a group linked to loyalist paramilitaries will not make the task any easier.

So while a new press secretary might recommend civility and good manners in the context of a normal parliamentary democracy, the most significant achievement might be to convince Sinn Féin and the DUP that the problem with Stormont is not image. It is the reality. For that reason, it does not need another press officer. It needs a new way of doing things.

Its first step might be to try honesty and see how that works.