Feeling sorry for politicians isn’t a habit of mine but I felt a twinge last night for Mary-Lou McDonald and Martin McGuinness. I was interviewing them (or ‘in conversation’ with them, as the Sinn Féin publicity promised) and prior to the public interview (about 100 people turned up for it at the Wellington Park Hotel in Belfast) I could detect a general anxiety about what would follow. Who was in the audience, were there tape-recorders and cameras running, would the whole thing work to Sinn Féin’s credit or would something be asked or said that led to damaging publicity.
I can’t speak for either politician or the audience but I enjoyed it. I like asking questions and I like working with large groups of people – old teaching habits die hard. I also enjoyed meeting up with some people I hadn’t seen in a while, including an ex-student of mine who, if energy and talent were properly rewarded in our warped education system, would by now have been promoted to a point where her abilities could show.
Several things struck me during the interview. One, how short a time an hour is; two, how difficult it is to include audience questions while maintaining some semblance of shape and pace; three, how important eye-contact is if you’re trying to stop a politician galloping off madly on a favoured hobby-horse. My sight-lines were neck-wrenching.
Of the questions responded to, the one about media bias was my favourite. Both McDonald and McGuinness were unambiguous in their criticism of Independent News & Media - Tony O’Reilly’s newspaper and other media outlets. As for the North, McGuinness figured the VO had an SDLP-slant and that his photograph was more likely to appear in the unionist News Letter than in the supposedly-nationalist Irish News. Deary deary me – the things politicians come up with.
Final thought. A fellow-blogger - a nice young man called Alan in Belfast – was in the audience tape-recording the whole session and afterwards did his own brief interview with McGuinness, using a nifty little Flip videorecorder. Alan's posting is on sluggerotoole.com if you’re interested, and he's kindly let me copy his sound-file of the 'conversation' (see below). I was struck by his slugger headline: “I would go so far as to say that Ronan Kerr voted for Sinn Féin”. Alan in Belfast declares this comment from the Deputy First Minister made some people in the audience feel very uncomfortable. He doesn't say how many but I wasn't among their number and in fact it never crossed my mind that there was anything tasteless about the rermark. On the contrary: McGuinness seemed to be pointing out, in response to a question, that young republicans were as likely to be found in the ranks of the PSNI as were Catholics with, let's say, more tepidly-nationalist views or none. He added in passing that he would have been equally outraged if a young Protestant policeman had been killed.
Alan's take on the answer if anything reinforces McDonald and McGuinness's case. North and south, there are media outlets traditional and new, ever-ready to report an event or comment so it spins into the public's perception of republicans like Oddjob’s bowler hat zipping straight for 007. (OK, OK, you're too young. Forget it.)