Belfast Telegraph

Monday 28 July 2014

Doors must not be shut on democracy

Some readers may wonder why this newspaper is today feeling outraged by a decision taken at one of Northern Ireland's district councils.

They might even think it is no great deal that Coleraine Borough Council has decided to bar the public and Press from all its meetings, apart from those of the full council and the planning committee.

But it is a big deal. Even more it is a disgraceful decision and flies in the face of what democracy is supposed to be about.

It is the belief of this newspaper that every public body should be as transparent as possible in all their work.

Far too much of what goes on in political life in Northern Ireland, right to the highest office in the land at Stormont, is shrouded in mystery.

There are armies of press officers, both party political and also part of the administration, who try to hide anything embarrassing and spin colourful versions of what really happens.

Politicians abuse their power when they ignore the rights – or wishes – of the electorate.

The ratepayers of Coleraine have every right to know how their local councillors behave in committees and if they follow the mandates that they presented at election time.

The council and some of its members try to argue that committee decisions will be presented at full council meetings, but these are not full recordings of what exactly happened at the committee stage.

Surely the Press and the public are the best judges of how councillors go about their business and arrive at decisions.

The Press in Coleraine is understandably livid at the council's move to hold committee meetings in camera.

In Northern Ireland, the Press is often the only spotlight shone on the work of politicians and this is a vitally important role. While the council may want to streamline its business – a laudable objective – that is no reason to exclude either public or Press.

If politicians are permitted to conduct their business behind closed doors, it will only encourage them to treat the public with even greater disdain. This is an iniquitous decision and one which should be repealed immediately.

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