Belfast Telegraph

So, Nolan is responsible for the stalemate at Stormont... and there was me thinking Sinn Fein and the DUP might have something to do with it

It's easier to shoot the messenger than admit that the deadlock might ultimately prove to be our fault, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Radio Ulster's Nolan Show is the biggest in the country. We know that it is because Stephen Nolan never stops going on about it. On radio. On television. On Twitter. He sometimes even puts it in capital letters, so that it becomes "The Biggest Show In The Country". It's a wonder the BBC presenter doesn't add a trademark symbol at the end, just in case others are tempted to try and steal his crown.

Let's just say it doesn't take a psychologist to conclude that Nolan may, just possibly, have a big ego. Perhaps even one as large as his licence fee-funded salary.

But what of it? Racked with insecurity as they are, stars of radio and TV are notorious for bigging themselves up in this way. Undeservedly, most of the time.

Just because someone's blagged their way to a high-profile job doesn't automatically mean they're any good at it. The number of people who excel at work is always a minority in every industry. That includes the media. The airwaves crackle each day with the deadening sound of mediocrity.

Nolan is different. That's probably what drives the haters mad. They deride his combative style of pot-stirring (that's the polite version), but what really gets under their skin is how good he is at his job.

Day after day he muscles his way into the public consciousness, putting himself right at the heart of breaking stories. That's what makes him interesting. That's why we're talking about him again now.

It's this same quality, though, which regularly leaves him open to getting caught in the political crossfire.

There's been a 'Boycott Stephen Nolan' page on Facebook for years now and the hashtag #boycottnolan is merrily doing the rounds on Twitter as well. He won't be too bothered. It just reiterates how central Nolan is to the national conversation. Better to be talked about than not.

But there's something more troubling about this new campaign.

And that's the growing accusation that he's not just making mischief with Northern Ireland's traditional woes, but is himself part of the problem. That he's creating instability and division, bringing discord where there would otherwise be sweetness and harmony.

This concern was articulated by Queen's University academic Professor Brian Walker, who tackled Nolan directly about it on air; but it took a more sinister turn when Sinn Fein became involved.

That party has always been keen to shut down anyone who refuses to play the role of uncritical cheerleader. It's now shamelessly leaping on the anti-Nolan bandwagon, using the hackneyed charge that anything which discomforts certain politicians must, by definition, be a threat to the fragile order.

On one level, this is so ridiculous as to be almost comic. There we were for years imagining that the biggest threat to the community was terrorists shooting anyone with the audacity to disagree with them.

Foolishly, we even thought it was Sinn Fein who had cynically brought down Stormont, citing the now conveniently forgotten Renewable Heat Incentive, and the DUP, which was telling porkies about the existence of a possible deal to get the Assembly back up and running.

But, no, it turns out that it was the media all along. If only those irresponsible newshounds hadn't been whipping up tension this mess would have been solved long ago. Does any intelligent person seriously believe such nonsense?

The thinking behind the attacks on Nolan seems to be that Northern Ireland just isn't ready for a mischief-maker on his epic scale. That the peace is too fragile to cope with him loudly pointing out that the emperors have no clothes.

What an egregious insult to people here to suggest we are the sort of "snowflakes" who can't cope with having our most cherished prejudices robustly challenged.

The rest of the world can deal with disagreement, but apparently we must be shielded from it, like a Victorian gentlewoman whose frazzled nerves must never be jangled in case she swoons.

During the Troubles, fair enough, there may have been a case to be made for toning it down.

Back then it needed a moderator, such as TalkBack's David Dunseith, who could navigate his way diplomatically through the minefield of any overheated political row.

By now most of us ought to be capable of hearing fellow human beings express differing opinions without losing our minds; and if some still can't manage it, then it's even more important that they start learning fast.

That the civic space has opened up here sufficiently to accommodate a broadcaster in Nolan's pugnacious mould, and that he's not merely tolerated but inspires genuine affection from a huge swathe of his audience, should be celebrated as a sign of resilience and progress.

Blaming Nolan for our ills is a kind of transference of guilt. Nolan does not cause division. He merely holds up a mirror to Northern Irish society.

Inevitably, there's some distortion, because radio and TV studios are artificial environments, where normality is exaggerated; but it's still an authentic version of what we are. If the reflection is unflattering, don't blame the mirror.

Political stalemate exists because of zealots who see every item on the agenda as a zero-sum equation, in which success can only come from humiliating opponents and they only have the power to keep doing that because we consistently reward their dysfunctional behaviour at the ballot box.

It's easier to blame Stephen Nolan than admit that the stalemate might ultimately be our fault.

Clipping Nolan's wings would not only be foolish, but dangerous. The one thing that those who are not very skilled at advancing their point of view consistently attempt to do is silence anyone putting the opposite argument.

Free speech is always the first casualty, because lying is so much easier when no one's around to challenge it.

The urge to silence Stephen Nolan is part of the same insidious movement which "no-platforms" controversial individuals by refusing them permission to speak and characterises every opinion with which one disagrees as "hate speech".

A study last year by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust found only seven out of more than 100 universities in the UK where there were no restrictions on free speech. Sadly, Queen's University, where Professor Walker taught, was not one of them.

It wasn't the worst, by a long shot, but it was a reminder that the fight against censorship can never be relaxed.

In this climate, the Nolan Show must be a line in the sand, a test case about how committed we are to defending the value of free speech in all its messy, muddled beauty.

Belfast Telegraph

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