A summer day last year and I walked into the Stormont Assembly Building. Kinda puffed up and proud with my invitation to a Reception in the Long Gallery in my hand. There for the first time in my own right, rather than part of a group invite to any organisation to which I belonged.
It was of course a few months after the 2011 Election and I am not actually sure if I was a member of SDLP at the time. If not, I had almost certainly made up my mind to join and might well have been waiting on my membership card to arrive.
I had of course spent the best part of two years on the fringe of politics…party conferences, launches, receptions, fringe events, hustings, fundraisers. But going in to Stormont via the famous Michael Stone Memorial Doors felt like I was in a different league.
Reception/Security gave me the bog standard “V” (for Visitor) Pass…..I had worn one before…but it felt different. Because milling around in the building were MLAs, journalists, press officers, Special Advisors, Secretariat Staff, political staffers, catering staff, work placement young people, interns………..and I seemed to be the only person there with that telltale “V” pass. I did not quite belong.
It was just after the Summer Recess. Several MLAs were meeting for the first time. Cross-Community hugs all round…..loud talk about holidays and the May Election results. I was taking it all in……thinking this might be a great place to actually work. A MLA who I was meeting for the first time that day seemed to best capture my mood. “This place can suck you in”. It was a reality check and I think good to be reminded that some politicians can keep their focus better than others. That going thru the Stormont Doors…….it is easy to enter a world of the Politician, the Journalist, the Press Officer etc.
Upstairs just beside the Long Gallery is the Members Dining Room…a reminder of the hierarchy in the building. Somewhere deep in the bowels of the building there is probably a cafeteria where the ordinary folks eat……and socialise.
Because I think Stormont can actually “suck in” the intern as much as the MLA. No General is a hero to his Batman. And essentially interns in the DUP, SDLP, Sinn Féin and UUP offices have more in common with each other than they have with their bosses. They are the people who actually do the work…phoning their opposite numbers in other MLA offices on behalf of their bosses. Well at least they THINK they have more in common.
It is important that much of the work of a MLA is simple representation of a constituent. Also important that much of the work of a MLA is on committee with other MLAs. But I think it goes too far to see a football team of cross-party MLAs lining up against a football team of Journalists (including Stephen Nolan!!!). For me that is simply too cosy. And counter-productive.
What is to be gained by this cosiness. It produces a breed of hangers-on at Stormont. Lobbyists who are just too often in the Long Gallery, getting a word with Conall or Fra or Basil or Nelson.
Keep it real guys and girls. Know your friends. Know your enemies.
Dont let this place suck you in.