Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Why are our politicians so hard-pressed to be open?

Caral Ni Chuilin issued a 'media protocol' to arms-length bodies about 'negative publicity'

One of the most telling indicators of an evolved, confident democracy is its attitude to the free flow of public information.

Enlightened administrations understand that openness, transparency and accountability keep government healthy.

The opposite is also true. A key marker of political immaturity is the restriction of information.

This type of governance — sadly all-too-common in Northern Ireland — is characterised by paranoia and a narrow-minded, acquisitive relationship with power.

In the latest instance of local Stalinesque control-freakery, Belfast City Council has decided to stop giving people details of what council committees are meeting to discuss, until they have actually discussed it.

This is significant, because most actual decision-making takes place at committee level, even though the full council is responsible for ratifying these decisions.

The proposal to restrict this information, now passed, appeared on the agenda of the strategic policy and resources committee meeting, ironically enough under the heading ‘democratic services and governance’.

Someone in the Dome of Delight clearly has a wry sense of humour.

Previously, this information was posted online, available to all, ahead of the meetings. One of the flimsy excuses offered for the clampdown was that the media sometimes approached the chairs of these committees, looking for comment, before they had a chance to get up to speed on the issues in question.

So, ostensibly to protect these sensitive souls from potential public humiliation, the council pulled the plug on the whole system.

But it's ordinary citizens who lose out. This was a valuable public information resource, where ratepayers could see in advance what committees would be discussing and how their money might be spent.

Now we will just be informed afterwards, once the decisions are taken. Maybe it's part of Belfast City Council's Five Year Plan.

Much of this impulse towards secrecy and the crude desire to control is motivated by fear and suspicion of the Press.

It's well known that Stormont is absurdly over-endowed with Press officers (161 at the last count), dedicated to making our rickety, legislatively-constipated Assembly look functional.

Special advisers hover like hawks, ready to pounce with sharp talons on any sensitive freedom of information requests and kill them off, if possible, in the manner of troublesome vermin.

Meanwhile, the civil service, weary of processing FoI requests and perhaps resentful of scrutiny after years of comfortable unaccountability, wants people to pay for the privilege of discovering what their representatives are up to.

We're not even allowed to know who funds our political parties. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where all identities of donors to political parties are kept secret, supposedly because of the possible threat of paramilitary intimidation.

That's rather convenient for the parties themselves, allowing them to claim that they'd absolutely love to be fully transparent about their finances, but the security situation just doesn't allow it — even though there's no evidence of a specific terrorist threat to politicians at this time.

Earlier this year, we saw governmental paranoia illustrated perfectly when Sports and Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin sent out a diktat — sorry, a ‘media protocol’ — to arms-length bodies, requiring them to consult with her department, DCAL, about any approach from the media.

Any hint of ‘negative publicity’ and they were to get on the phone to Fortress DCAL instantly — or else. The arms-length bodies were told that there would be ‘an early-warning system’ in place — an air-raid siren? Titanic-style distress flares? — ‘to ensure there are no surprises’.

Hilarious — if it wasn't so clunkily sinister.

It's hard to see quite why tough, hard-bitten, politically-experienced cookies like Ms Ni Chuilin are quite so terrified of someone like Donna Traynor on BBC Newsline asking a mildly unexpected question. What do they fear?

Ministers seem to believe that their hold on power is so fragile, they must cling on for grim death, massively over-reacting if someone dares to challenges their decisions.

They were ill-prepared for the challenges and responsibilities of devolution and, somewhere deep down, they know that. That's why they over-compensate by acting in an entitled, dictatorial and decidedly undemocratic manner, their special advisers riding shotgun.

I think of our leaders as beady-eyed squirrels, recently released into a forest full of tasty nuts, which they rush to hide away for themselves and refuse to share.

What they have forgotten is that we are the ones who own the nuts.



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