Belfast Telegraph

Politicians caused Stormont collapse but programmes like BBC Nolan Show don't help


Stephen Nolan’s BBC show has been accused of courting controversy by people including Brian M Walker
Stephen Nolan’s BBC show has been accused of courting controversy by people including Brian M Walker

By Brian M Walker

Fortunately, we enjoy a free Press in this country. Unfortunately, events over the last few weeks have shown how negative attitudes and extreme views in the media can have a damaging effect on our political life.

Recently the Nolan Show has faced criticism from myself and others that it prefers to court controversy and raise tension rather than to promote conciliation and bring common sense to solve our problems.

The blame for the collapse of the talks to restore a power-sharing Executive must be laid at the feet of our political leaders, but I believe that the Nolan Show made their task more difficult.

My good friend Ruth Dudley Edwards has praised Stephen Nolan for his job in taking our politicians to task. I accept that it is his role to do this - and I think that he does it fairly.

At the same time I believe the approach he takes to his questioning can sometimes encourage conflict and not problem-solving.

For example, he constantly sought to question efforts by our politicians to move away from promises, or 'red lines', that they had made at recent elections on issues such as the Irish language and gay rights. Efforts to compromise were challenged.

These same politicians had also promised to restore our Executive and to get this country up and running again. Both sets of promises are diametrically opposed, so compromise has to happen. This should have been encouraged - not criticised.

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Concern must also be expressed about how the Nolan Show can sometimes provide a platform for extreme views.

A free Press must allow the expression of all views, but there is a lack of more moderate voices on the show.

Also, some individuals with strong views seem to be regular contributors to the programme. On occasions prominence given to such views has caused censorship of moderate opinion.

The coverage on the programme over the issue of the Irish language played a key part in raising tension over this matter.

The Nolan Show brought on spokespersons from language groups who made extreme claims for their ambitions for an Irish Language Act. These included Irish language version names on all streets and roads, including the Shankill Road.

Another goal espoused by a spokesperson on the Nolan Show was that people would have the right to receive a service in Irish every time they visited a GP, or a motor tax office. Quotas for the Civil Service were talked about.

To challenge these views, people were then brought on who proceeded to make their extreme statements.

These ranged from claims that the promotion of the Irish language was all part of an IRA plot to declarations of intent to tear down any such signs on their street or road (as if this was likely).

What should have happened is that the programme should have engaged people who could have presented the case for a reasonable and moderate provision of the Irish language.

They could also have turned for advice to members of the excellent Irish language departments we have in our two universities.

Provision of information on the comparative fortunes of Gaelic languages elsewhere on these islands would have been helpful.

In the Irish Republic, efforts to promote the Irish language have not been successful. At the 2016 census it was revealed that only 73,806 persons spoke Irish daily outside the educational system.

This failure can be put down to the fact that, post-1921, promotion of the language was top-down, politically and ideologically driven and compulsorily imposed.

Elsewhere, however, there has been greater success in promoting Gaelic languages. In Wales some 20% regularly speak Welsh, while in Scotland Gaelic is spoken regularly by around 5%.

Reasonable policies in both countries, commensurate with local needs, serve to protect and encourage the language. There, the language promotion is ground-up with wide support. The Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 was passed unanimously by the Scottish parliament.

Instead, the heated arguments on the Nolan Show, with these uncontested claims and counter-claims for an Irish Language Act, helped to cause great tension in the whole community. This led to greatly exaggerated worries, especially among DUP supporters.

On Tuesday, February 13, Arlene Foster stated that there would be no compulsory Irish language in schools and no one would be forced to learn Irish.

Obviously, she felt it necessary to deny such outlandish ideas, because of widespread rumours among her followers.

Subsequently, the talks collapsed. An important factor was the deadlock over the Irish language. The heightened tension over the issue, to which the Nolan show contributed, made any agreement impossible.

Of course, the two main parties must share the major responsibility for this failure. The DUP failed to bring along its own members on the matter. Sinn Fein took no steps to put forward a moderate argument for language legislation to reassure unionists.

From what we now know, the parties had achieved agreement over some issues. They still faced difficulties over other matters, but were working on those. People were moderating their positions.

The parties and the media should acknowledge and praise these advances. What we don't need is for programmes, such as the Nolan Show, to criticise our politicians because they have moved from confrontational, 'red line' positions.

Sensible compromise should be praised, not derided. Moderation should be welcomed and extremism challenged.

It is nonsense to suggest that this is a call for censorship. It is a call for all opinions - not just the loudest - to receive a hearing. It is also a suggestion that other questions should be asked.

There is too much concentration on who saw what papers and who talked to whom. Constant negativity makes progress very difficult. Other issues could be raised on "the biggest show in the country".

What are the positive points to have come out of these talks? What are the steps necessary to reach a new agreement?

These are the questions that Stephen Nolan and other members of the media should be asking.

Professor Emeritus Brian M Walker is the author of A Political History Of The Two Irelands: From Partition To Peace (Palgrave Macmillan)

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