The exploitation of leaks is leaving politicians terrified of making any decisions, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

Jeffrey Donaldson and Gerry Kelly discussing the talks collapse on BBC NI’s The View

Jeffrey Donaldson and Gerry Kelly discussing the talks collapse on BBC NI’s The View

Published: 16 February 2018

I was about to begin writing about rumours, distortions, meaningless Civil Service drafts, pointless speculation and other linked issues when I saw a tweet from a friend attaching an excellent 2016 blog about historical truth and lies:

Written a propos Ken Livingstone’s perverted interpretation of the relationship between Hitler and pre-war Zionists, its author, historian John Blake, pointed out that he was typical of extremist grievance-mongers.

“These parasites on the past find a nugget of fact, rip it from any sensible context and build atop it whatever deranged narrative pushes their cause the best,” he wrote.

So I just had to mention Gerry Adams’s blog about the recent DUP-Sinn Fein farce, which did a run through Northern Irish history over the past century (“sectarian, corrupt apartheid system in which Catholics were denied jobs, homes and the vote, and repression was widespread… we were less than second class”) without even a glancing reference to republican violence.

No surprises there from a man whose movement continues to brainwash its rank-and-file as well as ignorant outsiders with a shameless rewriting of history that makes victims of terrorists and terrorists of the security forces that saved Ireland from descending into civil war.

Which is why we should remember that while politicians often fib, Sinn Fein lie as a matter of policy, so you should never believe a word they say unless you have independent evidence to back it up.

Now a few thoughts on last week.

I was a civil servant in London in the late 1970s in the Department of Industry.

One of the last jobs I was given was to draft a punchy and significant paragraph about a great leap forward in the industrial strategy and get it signed by our Secretary of State, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the heads of the CBI and the TUC.

By wheedling superiors and opposite numbers and rejigging creatively, I got the OK from minions of the first three by about draft five, but the all-powerful and hard-left TUC were utterly intransigent.

By the time their man signed, the paragraph was on its 17th draft and had become meaningless.

That experience was one of the reasons I decided to quit my well-paid job and become an impecunious freelance writer who could at least write what she liked.

I had also become alarmed that having been a profound sceptic about the Labour policy which I loyally sought to implement, I was beginning to believe my own propaganda.

As I would later see close up with civil servants involved with the Anglo-Irish and subsequent agreements, if you devote yourself to a project, you’re liable to end up unable to bear the thought that it won’t succeed – even if it’s going in the wrong direction.

Which is why officials often put intense pressure on politicians to compromise at all costs, regardless of their electoral concerns.

And why you can end up with the destruction of Northern Ireland’s middle ground, Brexit, and the present talks farce.

So that’s why my reaction to leaked documents drafted by civil servants is to say I’m suspending judgment until I see the final version and the signatures on the page.

Incidentally, while I’m in favour of transparency and honesty and all manner of good things, and absolutely believe in the importance of a free Press, I sometimes fear that sensationalist exploitation of leaks is making government impossible.

Not only are politicians terrified of being caught out doing something brave, but civil servants are running scared about writing anything frank.

In olden days official papers weren’t released publicly for 50 years.

These days it’s down to 20, because of the Freedom of Information Act they could come embarrassingly to light in a month and technology is a leaker’s dream.

As we feed off golden scoops, we in the Press need to be careful that we don’t kill the political goose.

And above all, we should remember the important difference between fibbers and liars.

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