Two ‘institutions’: Stormont and Nolan

Have you ever heard of a thought provoking speech at Stormont? No? Me neither. Most speeches are re-statements of well-worn positions. In short, the standard of debate is lamentable. Maybe it’s just as well there’s hardly any legislation at the so-called, “Legislative Assembly”.

Have you ever heard of a thought provoking speech at Stormont? No? Me neither. Most speeches are re-statements of well-worn positions. In short, the standard of debate is lamentable. Maybe it’s just as well there’s hardly any legislation at the so-called, “Legislative Assembly”.

The weak Assembly allows discussion programmes, like Stephen Nolan’s to assume greater significance than it would in a more functional society. When public figures face little accountability via the political system, public debate on the airwaves assumes relative importance. We may not like Stephen Nolan’s often hectoring style but we have to admit his ‘shows’ are hard to ignore.

They’re popular and he has significant impact. He has a gift for making his programmes lively.

When issues are likely to divide listeners along tribal lines, the usual politicians are on to the show faster than a rat up a drainpipe. So it is with flags, parades, security, national identity issues and so on. They’re a Godsend to the programme makers and to their political contributors. They allow well-worn stances to be rehearsed again and again to impress the gullible. Nolan is a sort of Jeremy Kyle for politicians.

On Nolan they can play out unseemly rows for public entertainment. It’s like watching families fighting on what Jeremy Kyle grandiosely calls, “national television”. OK, it’s grimly entertaining but if you were eavesdropping on a bitter ‘domestic’ in a restaurant or in the street you’d feel uncomfortable about it.

When the issues are likely to divide listeners along economic or class lines instead of simple tribal lines, the politicians are suddenly more reticent. For instance, on Nolan’s recent discussions about NHS waiting times politicians were conspicuous by their absence.

It was left to NHS boss Valerie Watts to defend the indefensible. She bravely went in to bat on the trickiest of wickets. It’s interesting when a senior NHS administrator such as Valerie Watts, a chief police officer or other public official ventures on to the Nolan Show. Stephen regularly lambasts public sector bodies, in the most intemperate terms, when they “hide” behind carefully crafted statements instead of putting their spokespersons up to be interviewed on air.

That, of course, is what live radio depends on. When they do put someone up to talk, however, Nolan becomes strangely obsequious.

Thus it was with Valerie Watts, for instance. Ms Watts was given a softer interview than she had endured earlier the same morning on a news programme with Noel Thompson. Hectoring, badgering Mr Nolan suddenly becomes respectful, even sounding inordinately grateful, when those in powerful positions do step forward. It’s obvious too that the larger-than-life broadcaster has an ego to match. That’s not uncommon in those with a special gift. Mr Nolan is extraordinarily touchy about any criticism of himself. It’s surprisingly easy to hit a raw nerve.

Thus, for instance, any allegation of political bias is usually met with an over-the-top, angry response. Comedian Tim McGarry recently joked before Nolan interviewed Paul Gascoigne that Nolan would, “force tears out of him… and try for another Galway,” Nolan hit back. Referring to a programme McGarry was about to do, Nolan said with a note of sarcasm, “I’m sure that’ll be fascinating.”