Tuesday, August 11, 2020


“Communication around the pandemic has been poor. Everyone knows it. What we have at present is a political blockage.”

This is the view of Stephen Grimason - a former BBC NI political editor, and director of communications for the Northern Ireland Executive from 2001 to 2016.

If you follow my social media channels or have heard me broadcast then chances are you will be familiar with my regular complaints about press arrangements and media access at Stormont and beyond.

The annoyance among colleagues is widespread though only some will raise it publicly, which is fair enough.

I have heard it said before that “you only lift a crying child” so I am going to continue to be that public pain in the backside.

A range of journalists, freelance and staffers, young and old, cubs and veterans - in broadcast, newspapers, wires and digital - are not being allowed to do their jobs properly.

We all deserve at the very least what is standard practice in other jurisdictions.

Proper, official, government and departmental press facilities, surely isn’t too much to ask for, particularly during a complex global pandemic when effective communication is more important than ever.

We now find ourselves in the bizarre position of watching our two First Ministers – DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill - appearing for pictures with the new Taoiseach and signing off on press releases together, but then appearing separately after Executive meetings.

They won’t be appearing on a platform together to communicate with the press and public about coronavirus because of a row over a funeral.

I get that mandatory coalition is difficult and that other jurisdictions are not perfect either but nobody is expecting perfect.

We can do better than being a laughing stock, and ultimately the public missing out.

The Executive Information Service has not been involved in post-Executive press conferences (which had been reduced from five per week to three) since the end of June.

They are run by the parties.

We see Executive ministers coming out after meetings to speak to whoever from the media happens to be around, or is invited, rather than open invites, live public briefings with questions, joint visual messaging, and so on.

Stephen Grimason told during the first iteration of Stormont, when the UUP and SDLP were the two major parties, there was not “the same degree of control freakery”.

“I didn’t happen then and there was a much more open approach," he said.

He added: “It should be officials advise and ministers decide but I believe what we have now is a half way point.”

Fear of making mistakes means there is “stasis, and nothing happens”, he contends.

In a crisis the communications teams ability to do the job effectively is compromised.

He believes the “large number of layers in the process slows communications down”.

“It is not the way it was designed to be,” he said.

“When pressure comes on and there is a crisis the two main parties turn in on themselves.

“Communication around the pandemic has been poor. Everyone knows it. What we have at present is a political blockage.”

He looks to the experience in Scotland where First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is widely praised for her approach to communication, even when under pressure.

The key, Stephen says, is for Stormont to have “constant communication with consistent messaging”, which is difficult when “the two main parties don’t agree on what the message should be”.

They are suspicious of each other but “it’s not the case of one thinking the other is the devil”.

“They want to place different accents on issues and that complicates matters," he said.

The current press arrangements is “not sustainable in the long term”.

“At some point there will have to be a kiss and make up, and someone will have to be blamed.

“That is usually the communicators, and the trick is for them not to mind.

“I can’t see it happening soon as there are signs in the DUP that they don’t want it to, and Sinn Féin will be mistrustful of what the DUP are about.

“There is a lack of trust between the two large power blocks and the public loses out.”

This situation needs to resolved sooner rather than later.

There has been an insatiable public appetite for information since all this started and they are not well served by present arrangements.

How long until the kiss and make up?

Until then, there will be more crying.

EDIT: Update. Thank you to U105, BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Newsline for picking this story up. Amanda

EDIT: Update, Tuesday, August 18th. Education minister Peter Weir hosted a press conference yesterday over the COVID19 exam results u-turn, and now the regular coronavirus briefings seem to be returning too..



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