The Devil’s Advocate: More heat than light—a critique of English press coverage of Northern Ireland

Gavin Fleming decries alarmist coverage of Northern Irish politics in the English press

Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast

Many a regime has been laid low by the ravages of fate and fortune: revolutions, palace coups, sex scandals, assassinations. But wood pellets? Governments have been cut down by sharper sabres. Even so, this blunt little bludgeon beat its way through the Northern Ireland Executive one MLA at a time. The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal, contained loopholes large enough for Leviathan to swim through, and is predicted to cost the taxpayers of Northern Ireland an estimated £490 million.

The refusal of Arlene Foster to temporarily stand aside as First Minister for an inquiry (as her predecessor did during a period of scandal) led to the resignation of the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness. Under the terms of the power-sharing agreement, the First Minister is not permitted to remain in office without a Deputy, and so Mrs Foster too was forced to stand down. James Brokenshire, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, frantically grappled with the Executive and Assembly as they slid along the precipitous slope towards that dreaded prospect: election! Northern Ireland descended into turmoil. The infernal fire of wood pellets paid for by the RHI scandal blazed across the province, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse rode through a Hadean sky heralding election day!

A bit excessive, I’m sure you’ll agree. But that is what it felt like reading the English press’ reaction to the events in Northern Ireland over the past month. They were all doom and gloom, perforated with words like “crisis”, “catastrophe”, and “disaster”. To read them one would have thought the province had ground to a halt, that all sense of normality was obviated, that life itself was unlivable.

I consider there to be two possible reasons for this hyperbolic assessment. Either these outlets were in the business of sensationalising the political developments of Northern Ireland, or they possessed certain misapprehensions as to the nature of the province’s politics. Either way, on the ground, the response to the month’s events was quite nonchalant. People went about their daily lives, popping into the shops to buy milk, making the daily commute to school or work, and generally just getting on with whatever needed to be done.

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The RHI scandal was a cause for anger, of course. £490 million does not go up in smoke without a few frowns. But one can hardly claim the place is in crisis simply because an election is necessitated. Like most any other Western democracy, it’s met with little more than rolling eyes and a sense of mild annoyance as candidates scurry around houses desperately trying to secure support for their seats. This is not a disaster—this is a democracy.

The apocalyptic fearmongering will have, admittedly, little effect upon the Irish, who are far too cynical to think anything so petty as provincial politics would get in the way of their everyday lives. As an Irishman myself, I can vouch for the claim. Humorously, it is oft-remarked (perhaps unfairly, but not unreasonably) that the only piece of “intriguing” legislation which Stormont passed was the introduction of a 5p charge on plastic bags. I’d say that’s probably the bottom rung of the excitement ladder, even as legislation goes.

People are little concerned by the squabbles of Stormont, regarding many of its members as petulant and often infantile in their politics and antics. It is an important indicator of the increasing normalisation of Northern Irish politics, that they place little stock in their leaders and are more concerned with the day-to-day lives they have to lead. One lady I know, devotee of the noble art (and craft) of crochet, rolled her eyes as the local news announced the upcoming election, turned casually and remarked: “It’ll hardly bring down the price of wool.” People have more important things to worry about than politics, and thank goodness that is the case.

But the reports of the press have been unhelpful throughout the UK as a whole. They spread an unhealthy image of Northern Ireland as a volatile and unstable province (an outdated caricature if ever there was one). They encourage Westminster to mollycoddle the Northern Ireland Government, instead of allowing it to find its own solutions to the nuanced and area-specific problems it faces. Ultimately, they ignore the reality that politics is not the fundamental concern of the people of Northern Ireland. Real change, real progress, is driven on the ground by community projects, good citizenship, neighbourly integration, and getting on with life. An election in Northern Ireland, like any other part of the UK, should be greeted not with the pessimism of peril, but with the optimism of promise. When Northern Ireland goes to the polls on the 2 March, 2017, I expect their message to “folks on the hill” will be this: “Get back to work like the rest of us!” Life goes on, and so will Northern Ireland.