Analysis: Foster and McGuinness make bold move to bring in a sharp critic

David Gordon with his book on the Paisleys
David Gordon with his book on the Paisleys

Six years ago, the man now charged with selling our political rulers’ actions to the public savaged the “Stormont political class” for its failures in a host of areas which had brought the legislature and executive into disrepute.

David Gordon, one of the most gifted and tenacious journalists of his generation, was at the time the political editor of the Belfast Telegraph.

During a decade or so at the paper, he was a consistent thorn in the side of politicians and civil servants, ferreting out information through Freedom of Information requests and a network of sources.

Writing amid the Iris Robinson scandal, he highlighted “serious accountability gaps with the UK” and said that the systemic failures “should be a source of embarrassment for all the Northern Ireland political parties, as they represent a failure by the Stormont political class”.

Now, after a bold (and, tellingly, joint) appointment by the DUP and Sinn Fein, he is chief propagandist for a Stormont system which since then has made some changes in areas such as MLAs’ expenses but where key problems which he has highlighted linger, such as secrecy over political donations, the lack of a means to enforce the ministerial code and an appalling approach by some departments to transparency.

It is a measure of the respect in which the BBC man is held – and evidence of an adventurous streak in Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness – that he has been handed such a critical role.

When Peter Robinson was First Minister he frequently bemoaned the executive’s inability to get its message across, comments which were seen as veiled criticism of the executive’s £3 million-a-year press office operation.

Whether or not there was any legitimacy in Mr Robinson’s complaint, there is a temptation for politicians facing criticism to think that all they need is a better PR operation.

In reality, most Stormont press officers have until now been asked to make bricks with no straw.

If this is a new era, as Stormont’s leaders say, it will require more than a new salesman and instead involve an executive which commands respect because of its record.