On a sophistry that leads away from conversational honesty in politics…

Malachi O’Doherty has a nice piece (the transcript of his piece in yesterday’s Talkback) of salami slicing of meaning in language, when he picks up the strange case of two opposing politicians who claim the right to be more than one person at once. The two people concerned: the DUP’s Culture Minister later to be referred to in his separate capacity as North Belfast MLA Nelson McCausland; and his Sinn Fein opposite number, the Chair of the Culture Committee, later to be referred to only as Tyrone MLA Barry McElduff).Malachi notes:

Maybe on other occasions he speaks as a representative of the Orange Order or a member of a church, and are we to allow him the conceit that all these people, all called Nelson McCausland have different opinions about things; that they aren’t to be taken as committing each other when they make bald statements?

But if you are still scratching your head and wondering what all the fuss is about, here’s the problem with all this metaphysical out-of-body stuff:

It means that the business of the elected assembly – elected that is, by you and me, in our capacity as voters – is shielded from us, by those we have elected into office, telling us that they wish to disregard their responsibilities for a moment and speak outside the roles we have given them.

It’s as if you had brought someone into service your boiler and asked them if it needed replaced yet and they said: well, speaking in a personal capacity, I think this will last you another ten years, but speaking in a professional capacity I like to recommend our new model.

The personal capacity allows people to speak a little more informally – perhaps even a little more honestly – but it also preserves the official capacity against the question that might force it to loosen up and be more honest too.

Commenters, please note: in an alternative to switching on registration (which usually deals effectively with trolls), I shall be moderating this thread heavily for man-playing and points off the point. As Kensei has said in a previous thread, all such posts will be taken out with extreme prejudice so that the rest of us can debate what’s actually being said both above and below…

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

  • Mick, do you have a transcript of those parts of the BBC interview where the two MLAs explain their ‘personal’ options? This would give the discussion some helpful context.

    IIRC Barry said he couldn’t speak on behalf of the committee as the committee hadn’t discussed the event. I don’t recall Nelson’s defence or the questions either was asked. Perhaps he requires DUP HQ or OFMDFM authorisation before he can pontificate as a Minister 🙂

  • Mick Fealty

    I don’t Nev, but yesterday’s GMU is available here: http://url.ie/28li … If you want to get the precise wording…

    The point is that we have two politicians pretending they are not what they patently are.

    If Barry did say that, fine. Then why choose the chair of the Arts Committee to deny he’s speaking on behalf of a brief against a Minister who also denies he’s speaking on behalf of that same brief.

    Malachi’s point is that this kind of game playing sets their public roles even further back in the mists of ‘Mount Stormont’ and makes them more inaccessible to the public than they already are.

    That’s not actually in the interests of a political class that is facing a collective struggle to retain the attention of its electorate, now more than ever before.

  • Thanks, Mick, I’ll have a listen later.

  • pacman

    At the end of the day, and I agree with Malachi’s exasperation about accountability, it’s all about votes.

    In a ministerial/chair capacity both have to be broadly (on the face of it) seen to be working for the good of the whole of the community. This is easy enough for them to do, because they were not elected to either the ministerial or chairpersons role, rather they were selected by their parties via d’hondt. Ergo they only have to answer to their party.

    However, they were elected to their MLA role by their respective electorates and to continue to ensure that they stand a chance of being re-elected, they have no need to maintain any pretence that they are there on behalf of the whole community. It’s not like either is likely to garner any electoral support from the other side, is it?

  • kensei

    I actually heard this exchange and it was a little comical. Baryy McElduff was generally awful and had his question on role bounced straight back at him.

    The problem, as I see it, is that if you force people to speak always from their official positions, then it is far more likely they simply won’t loosen up at all, and if they do, they will get punished for it. That seems to be the historical experience, and to an extent it doesn’t matter what position they say it from,if it is bad enough it will cost them their job. The lack of leeway or the digging for the next scandal or the immediate jumping of “What do you mean!? What do you mean!?” can tend to have destructive effects on politics, in my opinion as much as the tight lipped natur eof pols.

    Furthermore, the distinction seems to be less that Minster McCausland has different opinions, but the implications of what those opinions have on public policy and fair treatment. So I think there is room for the distinction to be maintained.

  • I speak, not in my capacity as a member of the community, but in my capacity as a leader of my tribe…

  • YelloSmurf

    It’s all a matter of hats. For example, the Lord Mayor of Belfast recently gave an interview to a radio station in Ballymena regarding the peace walls in Belfast. This inerview was performed in her capacity as her party’s OFMDFM spokesman rather than her capacity as Lord Mayor. A statement made as OFMDFM spokesman still reflects on the Lord Mayor, but only the person of the Lord Mayor, not the office.

    People should rember that it is possible, even disiralbe to change hats when one has more than one hat to wear, but that people will judge you on the performance of your head regardless of your hat.

  • kensei

    People should rember that it is possible, even disiralbe to change hats when one has more than one hat to wear, but that people will judge you on the performance of your head regardless of your hat.

    What I wanted to say, caught in a single line. Win!

  • dunreavynomore

    I will not give my own opinion on this matter but as a person responding to this blog I admit to being banjaxed in attempting to discover who is speaking in what capacity but this should not be considered to be my own personal opinion nor the opinion of this blog nor any person or persons connected to this blog.Furthermore, my bus ticket does not guarantee that I will be taken anywhere by bus. Ma, who am I today?

  • Drumlins Rock

    We all do the many hat things, we change our take on situations depending on whether we talk to our family, friends or workmates.
    But in politics it is much more of an issue here because of the small nature of the country as compared to GB (but not the RoI which seems ot have the same problem) where things get really complicated is when too many hats get involved, Naomi is one case atm as lord mayor, Sammy is the ultimate as he represents differnt areas as Clr, MLA, MP and a minister, although i think he seems to speak as just “sammy” most of the time.
    BTW would reducing the number of MLAs make this more of an issue?

  • It’s the complete oddness or abnormality of politics NI style which is infecting Nelson and Barry and, on a wider level, the DUP and Sinn Féin.

    The two parties have been thrown together in an unlikely marriage and are anxious to present a ‘united front’ to the world as this will allow them to continue to misgovern in the style to which they’ve grown accustomed. On the other hand, they want to appear to play their old sectarian games so they appear not to have compromised on the promises on which they were elected by the voters.

    Nelson attacks GAA clubs but sooner or later he will have to appear at a GAA match…..Barry is part of a party that pretends to be for the Irish language and is an Irish speaker himself but they have sat idly by as DUP ministers did untold damage to the language since the return of devolution.

    Currently there is a campaign to repeal the penal law which forbids the use of Irish in a court room in NI. It’s a stupid law of course given that were it not there, there is little likeliehood of a rush of cases as Gaeilge! But this campaign is occurring at a time when the final details about the devolution of peace and justice are being hammered out. Hands up those who think that this law won’t be ceremoniously repealed as part of that package but, also, there won’t be any practical provision made for the processing of cases as Gaeilge in NI courts.

    It’s all gong and no dinner politics you see….

    They think that people don’t see through this codology. They forget the core principle of democracy as pointed out by Lincoln:
    You can fool some of the people all the time and all the people some of the time. But youj can’t fool all the people all the time.

  • DC

    Then if people elected on political values revert to bland officialese isn’t it just better to go back to civil servants running the place. As I was told if join the civil service you get to hang your hat on a good pension.

    Such actions seem careerist because the MLAs dont assert the values on which they were elected, this doesn’t cause debate and so much for taking up those issues that politically you really believe in.

    It could be ‘career’ limiting to do so and may reduce your electoral term, but the idea is that you tackle head on what counts, be it a different understanding and cherished cultural value of the hunger strikes with a view to getting some recognition of that by opposing parties. With the aim also to get some sort of official recognition. It could backfire badly, of course.

    Or, a little fall out may happen, but if conducted with respect, a little reconciliation may be the final outcome. Even if certain careers shorten based on being a little distasteful to some and also risking that bland officialese mediocrity for a passionate debate driven by the values on which people were elected.

    Conviction I think it’s called. Can be terribly career shortening, so I’m told.

  • kensei


    Conviction I think it’s called. Can be terribly career shortening, so I’m told.

    It depends. Do you want to admired for your outspoken nature, or do you wnat to get things down. History is littered with people that are basically relegated to shouting from the sidelines. It takes a rare gift to combine both.

    I should point out that this does mean that people say they want wonderful conviction filled pols, and robust public discussion but when it comes the crunch, they appear to be lying .

  • Mick Fealty


    “All gong and no dinner politics”…

    Like it!!

  • DC

    Kensei, you’ve hit the nail on the head when I say it could all backfire badly. The idea is to do so within the realm of respect and not get shown up or to actually show others up for being aggressive and OTT. It is part of electoral battles and if certain political actors really are distasteful and aggressive at heart isn’t it better to witness that than some mediocre, bland or perhaps even false officialese?

    As I say it can be terribly career limiting, think thatcher over europe and Blair’s wars. Both of which were career shortening but still they were conducted with a degree of dignity inside the realm of lawful democratic politics nonetheless. That’s were it stayed more or less, although thatcher did get the poll tax riots and NUM strikes. So there is that warning, however, the political landscape changed and with it went its main actors. Those actions by the government were all taken legally I must add, however distasteful.

    Take our main and longstanding politicians, some have been kicking about for decades and decades with little positive contribution and areas shifting into decline.

    On the flipside an honest political debate may well end up actually turbocharging their own agendas with a little compromise here and there and it’s genuine a win-win.

  • I think we can probably blame the BBC interviewer for ‘sexing-up’ this news item [about 1hr 8mins in].

    Barry clearly explains that he was invited to give a SF perspective on the Galbally event whereas Nelson had an understanding with the BBC that he was speaking in an individual capacity, not as a Minister or as a DUP spokesman.

    Did the BBC seek an interview with the GAA about its application of Rule 7A? I thought that would have been the major story rather than the Barry-Nelson Show, entertaining as it was.

  • Alan – Newtownards

    I heard part of the interview yesterday morning and I believe I heard Barry McElduf claim, that there was no where else where the Irish republican/ nationionlist and Gaelic community could have held it. Is Barry saying that the G.A.A. and the Irish language belong to the republican movement? Has all the outreach work by the G.A.A. to convince the unionist people in N.I. that they have a place in the G.A.A. been a bit of a take on?

  • jone


    I take it from the online copy the BBC did approach the GAA but were (unsurprisingly) told to take themselves off.


  • Mick Fealty

    That is an important story Nev, but it’s another story. It’s not the same as this one. Alisdair McDonnell has put that very question in some hours ago: http://www.rte.ie/news/2009/0819/sinnfein.html

    If you want, I’ll link it separately. In the meantime: focus people. Focus.

  • Thanks, Mick. However, this one IMO isn’t so much a story as an example of poor quality BBC journalism that Barry and Nelson decided not to play along with.

  • jone, I wonder who else the BBC approached for a reaction to this event. If it was just the GAA, Barry and Nelson then it may indeed have had some method in its madness ie a little something for the pea-nut gallery – with round 2 in the greatest show in the country 😉

  • Mick Fealty


    Do you ‘get’ Malachi’s point, or not? He’s pointing to a residual condition behind the ‘story’, not the just the story itself.

  • Mick, perhaps Malachi’s article needs to be passed through the ‘crap detector’.

    “Because, this morning, on Good Morning Ulster he corrected Seamus McKee for making that assumption.”

    Why would Malachi imagine that Seamus was making an assumption when it appears that the terms of the interviews with Nelson and Barry were agreed in advance ie that they were both speaking as MLAs?

    “Then, in reply, comes Barry McIlduff, speaking in a personal capacity too.”

    Barry was the one who drew attention to the fact that Nelson was speaking as a DUP MLA, not as Minister, after announcing that he was speaking as a SF MLA, not as a spokesman for the GAA. Also, how could Barry have given a Committee Chairman’s perspective on a GAA rule?

    It would seem that Malachi was disorientated by BBC spin – and ended up arse about face 😉

  • If the King can have two bodies ( http://press.princeton.edu/titles/6168.html )
    why can’t our MLAs?