Boycotting Nolan is a refusal of a much needed opportunity for politicians to connect with the public…

As Ryan Tubridy takes what may well be a last roll of the dice to save his career in front of a Dail committee today, it looks like he’s planning to tough it out, but while we wait for an outcome it is worth taking a look at a controversy closer to home.

The Irish News over the last week has published a number of articles by commentators some of whom I like (£) and admire (£) on the subject of the SDLP’s (unwisely in my view) decision to boycott the Stephen Nolan Radio Show.

To declare an interest, I’m a semi regular guest on the show, so I guess you can fairly say I would say that, wouldn’t I? Well, if, as LBJ once said, politics is all about the numbers, then Newton Emerson shares the critical ones in Nolan’s favour…

Mr Nolan’s Radio Ulster show has 150,000 regular listeners and reaches over a fifth of Northern Ireland’s population. The SDLP had this huge audience effectively to itself from mid-2020, as the sole representative of nationalism, after Sinn Féin threw a huff over coverage of the Bobby Storey funeral.

I know people on this site have attacked Nolan in the past as a trouble maker and someone who’s questioning of Stormont players has been held to have created the very instability we’ve seen ever since the RHI debacle hit our screens.

Here’s the rub. I never agreed with Nolan’s take on the RHI crisis. But it was clear to me at the time that although it happened on the DUP watch they had no clue what the problem was. And from whomever they were taking advice had no clue either.

Arlene claimed (rightly as it happened) that as Minister she had been accountable but not responsible for breaking the RHI budget back in the autumn of 2015 (just when her party was doing the Hokey Cokey over the killing of Kevin McGuigan).

But she couldn’t account to Nolan or anyone else for what happened. Had she, she may not have stopped a collapse (SF leadership knew McGuinness was dying and was eying the exit door), but a boycott might not have been as easy to effect.

As it turned out, Stormont collapsed because the institutions (and those parties whose job it was to uphold them) were far too weak to face a relatively mild stress test. It remains a problem that’s blocking out the future for Northern Ireland.

I get that Nolan is a tough cookie, but if he was half the things people say he is (frankly I’ve found Tubridy far more offensive in the way he sometimes handles his radio show guests), I wouldn’t take the call. Yet, if you’re going on you need something to say.

Sinn Féin boycotts Nolan to avoid having its political figures embarrassed as they were over Storey, but it also has surrogates who whilst being independent are very happy to push a pro SF line on its behalf. You can usually tell which callers do the same.

They are passively benefitting from a huge sectarian reflex that’s currently in play courtesy of a St Andrew’s dynamic which has all but killed internal competition in and between unionist and nationalist parties. Playing along is a problem for the SDLP.

The institutions the SDLP helped build were, among other things, to preserve decency. Don’t talk about “our institutions” unless you are prepared to act on their behalf. They have no ability, as Tim Snyder has pointed out, to protect themselves.

His other lessons include, 8 Stand Out, “it can feel strange to do something different but without that unease, there is no freedom” and 10 Defend Truth “if nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights”.

Politicians (and other critics) say Nolan has power. Well, whilst the institutions it must certainly feel like that. But power rightly belong to elected politicians (as and when they can be bothered to take up the challenge of representing their own electorates).

What Nolan actually has is influence, which elected politicians can either use that to get their messages out to some 150,000 people, or suffer the consequences (as Arlene and the DUP did) when they cannot answer his really annoying questions.

Newton again:

…the purpose of Mr Nolan’s programmes is holding power to account, not influencing elections. His audience figures are also unharmed. All the current boycotts are achieving is denying nationalism a voice and the opposition a platform to hold power to account.

Nolan’s audience also tunes in in such numbers is because he talks about issues that matter to them. Issues that barely feature in the often over processed debates and inward looking Kremlinology to be found elsewhere (including occasionally, here).

It’s not as though nationalism in general (and the SDLP in particular) can afford such self indulgence. Now Brexit is done, and panic over ‘a hard one’ recedes, the proportion of the population contemplating ‘an end to the Union’ is dropping like a stone.

My advice to any NI party is that unless you have something useful to say on the cost of living/waiting times/north south investment etc, etc, steer well clear of Nolan. However if, as a result of your boycott, nobody’s listening to you, nobody will care.

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