‘Stephen Nolan needs to find the right balance – and not make angry people angrier’

Stephen Nolan needs to find the right balance between allowing people to express their emotions, without making angry people even angrier. The plea was made in the latest Forward Together podcast by Sinn Fein MLA and former finance minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir.

“In this often divided society, I think the tone and timbre of the debate has to be respectful,” says Máirtín. “We have to find ways of not feeding the ratings monster, not sectarianising a discussion, which has huge sectarian elements in it. We have to find ways not always to try and have a race to the bottom in terms of the dialogue, or to turn it into a rant.

“I have huge respect for Stephen Nolan. I think he is the pre-eminent broadcaster on the island, certainly in the north of the island. But as he knows, there are a lot of angry people out there and he has to find a way to get the balance between making those people angrier and instead of that trying to find a way for angry people to express, to emote, to vent, if necessary. But what is the purpose of us as a society in trying to start this discussion if all we’re going to do is poke people in the eye with a stick, or make people even more polarized?”

Máirtín urges us all to change the way we discuss politics and society.  “I think we could start by listening,” he says. “It is a truism that you learn more by listening than by talking. I don’t have all the answers, but I have been, for 30 years of political activity, a big believer in building community – the phrase I use for developing and working for the common good. That has to be to the fore in our minds if we are going to adopt any strategies – whether around economic development, around providing adequate health services for our people, focusing on education, building healthy prosperous societies.  We have to be focused on the common good.”

One of the main challenges is that close under the surface of Northern Ireland society is suffering and anger.  Máirtín recalls: “Being mayor [of Belfast] was easy until someone mentioned the past. Once the past was mentioned it was almost as if you entered a different, parallel universe, where the tone of the debate sharpened, where an unwillingness to entertain any other view was to the fore, that the bitterness oozed out on all sides. As Seamus Heaney said, people get hurt and get hard. So if we are going to try find ways to build a stronger civic society we are going to have to find ways to engage in a frank debate and find a safe space to do that.”

He continues: “We have to give leadership.  And anyone who engages in partisan and provocative politics and calls it civic leadership is not going to do us justice. So if you want to enter the public square and have 90% of the debate on [what should be] the present [instead] focused on the past, it’s not going to work. If you’re going to refuse to listen, if you are going to refuse to turn up – and I’ve been to a series of events recently where the DUP refused to turn up – it’s not going to work….  every voice has to be heard.”

But, asked if this included what might be termed dissident republican and loyalist representatives, Máirtín responds: “There also have to be ground rules.  You can’t come in and talk at the table with everyone else, but then go outside and be selling the drugs which are damaging this Belfast community….  For me, one of the reasons the government collapsed was that the DUP were unwilling to have all voices heard.”

He continues: “We have to have policies from the top which exemplify a shared approach and inclusive approach. You can’t be a leader, but say we believe our partners in government are rogues and renegades. You can’t be a leader and say look I believe everyone should be at the table. But by the way, by my actions I’m making sure that money only goes to certain people and not other people.  You can’t say one thing and then your actions portray another thing and that is why, in my view, the government collapsed…  There is a problem in this society of being heard.  We talk past each other… We don’t hear each other.”

Interviewed before the latest round of political talks, Máirtín laments the loss of contacts between representatives of the different parties. “Not having an Assembly is a real hindrance in terms of building relations among political leaders because you don’t see people in the corridors, or in the cafes, or whatever…. So we are in a worse place than we were two years ago.  There is less dialogue and interaction… All the bridges are down.  If you asked me now to ring a DUP MLA, well first of all I don’t know half of them, because they have been elected after the last Assembly election and I’ve never met them…. I don’t have a DUP MLA I could talk to.  That wouldn’t have been true in the last Assembly and that wouldn’t be normal politics…. So the bridges are down more than two years ago.  We are in a worse place.”

Máirtín believes that the Stormont House Agreement provided the basis for dealing with the past, but that progress has since been reversed – for which he blames the DUP.  “We are at loggerheads.”  He is clear that the correct approach is to accept that it will never be possible to agree about the past, but it is possible to agree on how to build the future.  He adds that “we’re going to have to find a way to deal with the terrible hurt that we have suffered. And I think the Stormont House-related mechanisms [provide that]. But it is it is a matter of the heart.”

He adds: “I do think I have to make a statement that the war is over. And for me that means that the slate is clean. People are absolutely entitled to deal with the past, hopefully by those mechanisms we have agreed. But for me if you were going to continue to fight the battles of the past today – and I think the DUP did bring that into government, they thought we’re still at war – if you’re going to bring the war mindset into government, then that’s not going to work, we are not going to make progress.”

The latest podcast interview is available here. The podcasts are also available on iTunes and Spotify.


  • Holywell Trust receives support for the Forward Together Podcast through the Media Grant Scheme and Core Funding Programme of Community Relations Council and Good Relations Core Funding Programme of Derry City and Strabane District Council.



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