Newspapers must be more than tomorrow’s chip paper…

I’ve just received a copy of David Gordon’s new book on the fall of the house of Paisley. Which is timely since it is published today. It’s one of our top recommendations in our online bookshop at Amazon. And today he’s the first of several guest writers to pick up on that theme I promised yesterday with some of his reflections of what political journalism is getting wrong through it’s own lack of rigour in questioning the twists, turns and inconsistencies of our political parties… It’s a great piece, but as he says at the bottom the point is not to soapbox but help ginger a much needed ‘heated debate’…By David Gordon

Is it time to reclaim political debate in Northern Ireland from the political class?

That’s one of the weightier questions that have been on my mind while writing The Fall of the House of Paisley and preparing for its publication this week. I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the Stormont-centred political scene is too often missing the big picture.

Take the current power-playing over the devolution of policing and justice powers. How much of what’s going on up there has anything to do with actual policing issues, such as concerns about violent crime and anti-social behaviour?

Here’s a bigger question to throw out in the hope of kicking off a debate. To what extent did the “creative ambiguity” mindset of the peace process become a cover for the political class to say one thing and do another? The DUP’s gradual shift towards the 2007 devolution pact with Sinn Fein provides a fascinating case study. The commentariat largely went along with the official narrative about requiring Sinn Fein to back the PSNI.

In the real world, however, many grassroots Paisleyites saw the leader they once revered going against everything he had stood for. They had a point too.

Paisley did not oppose the Good Friday Agreement on the basis that republicans were not signed up to policing. His no campaign in 1998 was built on much more fundamental grounds, involving dogmatic opposition to the very idea of Sinn Fein Ministers. Arguments can be had about the relative merits of the Belfast and St Andrews Agreements.

But if it all boils down to tactics, circumstances and judgement calls, how do you explain all the extreme vitriol heaped onto Trimble and co? Taking a longer-term view, it should also be remembered that Paisley spent decades opposing power-sharing in principle, denouncing those who supported it as traitors, and claiming divine approval for his stance.

The DUP base could be forgiven for feeling confused in 2007 when power-sharing received the blessing of Paisley and, presumably, the Almighty as well. It’s natural and in some cases vital for politicians to change and adapt over time. But surely the Paisleyite heartland was entitled to a full and coherent explanation for the u-turn? It did not get one.

Instead there was chuckling with Martin McGuinness, coupled with an apparent belief in Paisley that he had achieved all he ever wanted. The divide between his party’s devolution deal “narrative” and the real world had consequences.

A section of the base rebelled, within the Free Presbyterian Church and at the Dromore by-election. This helped bring about the Fall of the House of Paisley. If politics remains little more than a private game between different sections of the political class, what are the chances of more general disenchantment growing in the great unwashed?

Developing a new agenda or fresh debate is not an easy task. Any discussion of politics among the Belfast chattering classes will invariably produce such phrases as “People will still vote for the same old parties” or “We get the politicians we deserve”. The reality is that the current Stormont set-up is heavily biased in favour of the status quo.

For a start, there’s the fortune shelled out by taxpayers to fund spin doctors, researchers, advice workers, constituency offices and other operations of the main parties. That provides an in-built advantage over potential rivals, courtesy of the public purse. And let’s not forget the communal designation of the Assembly, where the votes of those not categorised as unionist or nationalist can carry less weight.

Meanwhile, Stormont has little or no say on major policy areas like public spending and borrowing, taxation, benefits, pensions, foreign policy, defence etc.

I’m not saying the system has been deliberately fixed to favour the current political class. But it’s hard to imagine a better way of ensuring that politics is restricted to the same old ground, with the same old people making the same old sounds.

As Mrs Merton used to say, let’s have a heated debate.

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