FM and dFM troubles: “a lot more work to be done before there’s true unity…”

Well, what a homecoming! No sooner had the First Minister got down off the steps of his transatlantic flight than Jane Loughrey of UTV was on hand to ask some relevant questions… And there at 2.56 is Peter’s immortal line, “Stop reading the Irish News…”

It spawned three pages of coverage in that paper the following day, Saturday. Then today there was a response to the story, carried in the Irish News itself:

“At no time has the first minister called for a boycott of any news-paper his ‘stop reading The Irish News’ comment was directed, in good humour, at a UTV journalist who had asked a question quoting an analysis that relationships in [the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister] were frosty,” the spokesman said. Any sensible person who watched the UTV clip will know this is a concocted story.”

So, that’s not a boycott then. But, and this is where it starts to get interesting: where did the Irish News get the idea that relations between the two men were frosty? For what its worth, I don’t believe they actually are, particularly. But something is definitely not working between them.

Last Thursday the paper’s pol corr John Manley reported DUP disgruntlement with Sinn Fein’s press office for “lifting tracts of an official press release and issuing it under Mr McGuinness’s name”. We can only presume it was this one.

The DUP sources went on to say that they (ie, the FM’s side of the office) had no problem publishing the details of the expenses on the trip. But then again, this was in response to a private briefing from Sinn Fein’s press office suggesting that Mr Robinson was the block.

That, it seems, has been a running problem before, during and since the trip. Questions tabled by Mike Nesbitt and Conall McDevitt still have had no reply. By contrast a similar request in the Welsh Assembly was treated as routine so that the following question from Nick Ramsay (Monmouth) asked on 7th March:

Will the Minister detail all costs associated with the trade mission to Los Angeles from 28 February to 2 March 2013, including costs for anyone who accompanied her on the trip. (WAQ64270)

Was answered promptly the following week by 12th March:

The Minister for Business, Enterprise, Technology and Science (Edwina Hart): I was accompanied by two members of staff. The total cost was £17,006.62 (£15,778.77 for travel and £1,227.85 for accommodation).

Disarmingly uncomplicated, or what? You ask a question; we give you the answer! Yet in Northern Ireland we are still waiting for a rely to Jim Allister’s numerous requests for information on the Chinese trip late last year.

The deputy First Minister was somewhat on the defensive himself when he tweeted back to our own Alan In Belfast:

Let them eat Tweets, he said!

Gary McDonald, in very useful survey of the historic role of trade missions and their essentially long term pay back, noted the tweet Saturday’s Irish News and had this to say:

In fact, not only were the media not told of the trip in advance but reporters aren’t normally invited on trade missions because of “commercial sensitivities” around participants doing business and having private one-on-one meetings on their trips. Emphasis added

[Psssttt. No Trade Minister on a Trade Mission? How’s that, ahem, story holding up for youse? – Ed] As Tom Kelly observes of the First and deputy First Minister today, “both men are politically stuck with each other as closely and involuntarily as conjoined twins”. He goes on to note:

In reality [Stormont] is a tetchy and mistrustful place where wounds and scabs are regularly picked over by mainstream politicians to satisfy the lowest common denominator in either tribe.

Politicians blame the media for their woes but as the low turnout in the Mid Ulster by election proved, the stagnation is much closer to home. It is clar that more people are opting out of voting because representatives are becoming increasingly removed from the reality of every day living and its economic challenges.

Time to list to the message and stop shooting the messenger.

Quite. It’s almost as though they were waiting for the tide to go out. Or to quote a less than impressed POTUS:

“There’s a lot more work to be done before there’s true unity in that office country.”

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