Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: Public suffocation of diverse voices is unhealthy

By Suzanne Breen

Claims that the DUP fines its politicians if they speak to the media without permission are deeply disturbing on so many fronts.

The party leadership argues that it operates under a constitution and code of conduct that is well known by its elected representatives before they join up.

But the crux of the matter is whether the DUP wants automatons or individuals, flesh-and-blood political representatives or puppets on a string.

All parties need to ensure discipline or they will disintegrate.

The DUP doesn't wish to repeat the Ulster Unionists' mistakes. But fining your representatives goes way beyond trying to ensure they're all singing off the same hymn-sheet. As TUV leader Jim Allister remarked "this is Northern Ireland, not North Korea".

DUP MLA Jim Wells said the fining system had been in place for 20 years. It's extraordinary that it has remained secret until now and proves the power that the iron fist wielded.

The whistleblower who spoke to the BBC has shone a light into the dark corners that their party would prefer remained in the shadows. Although Sinn Fein exercises stringent control of its representatives, no other political party here operates the DUP's system of fines and the revelation will surely raise eyebrows at Westminster. The former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Sir Alastair Graham, described the situation as "quite unacceptable". It was authoritarian, draconian and anti-democratic, he said.

Introducing a financial penalty leaves a very bad smell in the air and gives the appearance of money being the DUP's driving force.

It also smacks of inequality. Fines reportedly start at £100 but can increase to as much as £1,000 for repeat offenders. While MPs may have deep pockets, the same can't be said for councillors who would seriously struggle to stump up such cash. So censorship will be more powerful for poorer representatives.

While most political parties on these islands set their policies at annual conference, control in the DUP lies with a smaller circle of individuals - the party executive and officers. The cut and thrust of debate that you would find at a Tory or Labour conference is absent.

The public suffocation of diverse voices is fundamentally unhealthy in the long-term. The fine system suggests that it is fear, not faith, which the top brass use to maintain control at times. The DUP trades on being a party of the people. But most ordinary folk will instinctively know that this level of domination is a step too far.

Belfast Telegraph

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