Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

How Ian Stevenson scored a point against the spin doctors

Man of the match at the All-Ireland senior club hurling championship final at Croke Park at the weekend was surely DUP Mayor of Ballymoney Ian Stevenson, who was there to cheer on winning team Loughgiel Shamrocks. (Now there's a sentence you never thought you'd read!)

Stevenson had earlier posed for media photographs wearing the Loughgiel strip, wielding hurl and sliotar. He has, it turns out, family links to the game and the team. His Church of Ireland granda played for them back in the 1920s.

You certainly got the feeling his attendance at the final, wholeheartedly cheering on the Co Antrim lads, was something more than the careful choreography of the tit-for-tat appearances of Messrs Robinson and McGuinness at GAA and Windsor Park.

The difference being you just knew Stevenson's heart was really in it.

Did he have to give the matter considerable thought before he announced his intention to weigh in behind the team?

Or was it just one of those things you do by instinct because you feel it's the right thing to do - and to hell with any political consequences?

I really like to think it was the latter. If only because spontaneous, instinctive, heartfelt action on the part of local politicians has become such a rare thing.

The passion has been beaten out of them.

It's been replaced by the press office ...

Around the time that the uplifting story of Ian Stevenson's intent to back his local team hit the headlines (and who wasn't cheered by that story?) there was another report, this time about claims that Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin was attempting to gag what are known in the business as arm's-length bodies. These are bodies such as the Arts Council, the Sports Council and Armagh Planetarium which are part funded by DCAL.

In an exclusive report, this newspaper carried a leaked email from the minister demanding that in future these bodies consult first with her department in the event of any media approach. And pointing out that the minister should be offered the opportunity to "lead" in any resultant publicity.

So what, you might say? As Culture Minister it's down to Ms Ni Chuilin to keep tabs on what's within her remit. But you could equally argue that it's reflective of the new Stormont Stalinism (and Ms Ni Chuilin is far from being the only culprit) which stifles any free thought, snuffs out any sign of dissent and serves up to the public only very carefully controlled information.

It is about a process which is to transparency what Peter Robinson is to being a real GAA fan or what Martin McGuinness is to a genuine Blues man.

And the vanguard of this information control campaign are those legions of press officers Jim Allister told us all about recently when he revealed that the government now employs more press spokespersons than there are journalists employed by media outlets in Northern Ireland.

I am not arguing against the employment of press officers. Some of these people are very good at what they do. Some of them are my friends.

But let's not kid ourselves - the vast majority are there not to provide you and me with information. But to ensure we get what Stormont and its politicians consider the right sort of information.

It's not about openness. It's about Stormont self-serving spin. And the added twist is that you and I get to pick up the tab for it.

No wonder that the likes of Ian Stevenson acting from the heart and willing to take a risk strikes us as something new and refreshing in the local political arena.

By contrast the control freakery of Team Stormont is enough to make anyone want to hurl.

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