Some of the recent actions of our Executive Ministers have betrayed an attitude of defensive paranoia when it comes to interventions from civil society.
It was revealed earlier this month, for instance, that Arlene Foster wrote a haughty letter to the Co-op, reprimanding them for organising a screening of the anti-fracking documentary Gaslands in Belfast.
Meanwhile, her party colleague Nelson McCauseland has killed off the Green New Deal, relying on the advice of in-house “economists,” instead of the detailed research of a coalition of business leaders, unions, and green NGOs.
On the subject of green NGOs, Alex Attwood has been publically bemoaning some environmental charities for adding to his difficulties in implementing his agenda of sustainability, because we had the audacity to point out that it’s not very sustainable to dump a golf course on a national treasure.
Add to all of this the roping off of the media during the infamous Girdwood photo shoot, and you build up a picture of an Executive and Assembly in siege mode, viewing civil society and the fourth estate as at least nuisances, if not malign threats.
This is an inefficient and ineffective way to govern. Alex Attwood is now facing an expensive legal challenge, and public condemnation from UNESCO, when he’d rather work on a legacy of climate change legislation and environmental protection.
Arlene has become public enemy number one for many residents of north Antrim and west Fermanagh, and rumours of her personal interests in the Fermanagh project are rife.
Malachi O’Doherty pointed out in the last ever Hearts and Minds that there is a general sense that politicians are “coining it,” which has little or no evidence to back it up. This public perception of “corruption” has arisen out of two main causes.
The first is the baffling, and often very unpopular decisions made by our Ministers, which are generally only ever put out to public consultation as faits accomplis.
The second is the lack of transparency around party funding in Northern Ireland. As long as the register of major donors held by the Electoral Commission is kept secret, we are free to conclude that our democracy is being sold to the highest bidder.
The results are very dangerous for our society and economy.
Voter turnout is at a record low and could drop below 50% in 2015. Resentment and disengagement will find increasingly destructive outlets when people feel that they are not being listened to and that sinister forces control their politicians.
There are many changes that need to happen soon to stop the rot setting in, but Friends of the Earth is going to focus on party funding.
Our Who Pulls the Strings? campaign, which we launched last Thursday, will seek to demonstrate the public hunger for access to the donor register. We’re not worried about the short-term embarrassment that revelations or scandals may cause, even if that means heads will roll.
We want to begin the process whereby civil society is respected as a legitimate contributor to the formation of policy and legislation, rather than an inconvenient after-thought to be patronised or shooed away.
Being able to shine a light on what financial forces are influencing decision makers at present is a good start.
When it comes to this subject, politicians have been even more brittle than usual. I recently brought up the subject informally with an MLA who is usually sympathetic to the environmental justice cause, and received an expletive strewn mauling in response.
We’re prepared for a lot more defences to go up. But, if we must, we’re happy to help tear them down.
If you’d like to get more information about the campaign, please email me at [email protected].