My piece on the Ritchie statement is now up on Comment is Free. In the meantime though Slugger has learned that none of the other parties in the Executive were expecting Ms Ritchie to make the announcement she made, which may go some of the way to explain the rather colourful point of order made in the chamber, which in turn led to what turned out to be a forty minute hiatus. It’s also been pointed out by one Stormont insider that the weirdly inappropriate big gun attack from Sinn Fein seems to have been predicated on the assumption that she was going to grant the money, despite the fact at least public figure inside the party had been actively encouraging her to give the money to the UDA.Ms Ní Chuilín: “Does she agree that, as someone who is in the public eye, she, as Minister for Social Development, and her Department funded the UDA?”
John O’Dowd: “…if the UDA does the decent thing and puts its guns beyond use, stops intimidating the loyalist communities and moves into a peaceful mode, regardless of all that is she prepared to fund such an organisation?”
Fra McCann: “Why did the Minister go against her Department’s policy of targeting social need and abject poverty, by funding one community over the other, when social need stretches across the community?”
Martina Anderson: “I remain concerned, as do other Members in the Chamber, that the Minister’s statement clearly indicates that it has been left open for the UDA to receive funding should it decommission.”
And this exchange is worth quoting more fully, to put the questions above in some context:
Mr McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Will the Minister agree that the kernel of this debacle is the initiative, taken by the direct rule Ministers, to direct funding towards the UDA, and which she has continued? Will she also agree that lessons should be drawn from this unfortunate experience? If the policy of targeting social need on an objective basis were the only criterion, the UDA would never have been granted money, either in the past, the present or the future.
Ms Ritchie: I thank Mr McLaughlin for his question.
I do not disagree with the issues that he raised about the direct rule Administration. It is unfortunate that many Ministers inherited policies that were not rightly placed or correctly implemented by that Administration. Many Members in this House, including members of his own party, and members of his party in the Executive, have been silent on these issues over the last number of months. I hope that there will be support for proper standards in Government and for tackling deprivation, disadvantage and poverty. The purpose of the Department for Social Development is to build communities through tackling deprivation, disadvantage and poverty, irrespective of where they lie.
The very bluntness of the attack suggests someone briefed the party’s MLAs for one decision, and they were barely able to shift their scripted contributions when the Minister unexpectedly stuck to a line she had been flagging for months.
Brian Feeney remarked on the early exchanges in the Assembly that “plodding through a script shows you’re not thinking”. The effect is even worse when a whole team lets rip with all its rhetorical fire power when the ‘target’ is, figuratively speaking, standing right behind them.
In which case who sold whom the dummy? If not Ritchie, whose pronouncements on this issue at least have the virtue of scrupulous consistency, then who?
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty