Sammy Morrison is currently press officer to Jim Allister MLA, viewed by some as Stormont’s one-man opposition. He is a former unionist blogger and parliamentary candidate in East Antrim for the Traditional Unionist Voice.
In the Arena is OU’s irregular series on unionists working ‘behind the scenes’ in Stormont and elsewhere. Questions were set by OU’s deputy editor Paul Watterson.
1. Can you describe briefly what your present role entails?
The work which I am involved in varies a lot from day to day which is one of the main reasons I enjoy it. Obviously as press officer I deal with a lot of press inquires which can come on any day of the week at any time of the day. I also draft a lot of press releases.
I help Jim prior to debates with research although as Jim never reads his speeches this is always in the form of short notes. Jim sits on two committees – the Committee for Procedures and the Committee which shadows the work of the Department of Employment and Learning. I read the files ahead of the meetings and prepare briefs for Jim. I also try to keep an eye on what is going on in the other committees although this can be difficult as only MLAs who are on a particular committee receive the papers ahead of the meeting. In recent weeks I have been following the work of the DFP committee especially closely as they have been taking evidence on our private member’s bill.
I also help with the drafting of questions. An MLA can submit a maximum of 5 written questions a day and Jim has asked over 1,400 questions since his election.
I also help with some issues which members of the public come to us about although the bulk of that work is done by staff in our Ballymena and Ballymoney offices.
2. How would you describe your professional relationship with the various elements of the media? Are there certain journalists that you would avoid, ie the fact that you are working for Jim Allister means that their attitude towards you and what he says, is preset?
I think TUV has always had a problem with the media, particularly the broadcast media, because of their pro-Agreement bias. There is a real difficulty getting air time especially at election time. Having said that, since Jim’s election to Stormont I think that all elements of the media have recognised that the contribution which he makes to the Assembly is invaluable. Because he is outside the Executive he can ask questions which others cannot. For example, no MLA belonging to a party represented in the executive would ask how much each department spent on hospitality and then add the figures together to get a total because their own Minister[s] would be “implicated”. The media like financial stories like that.
There are certain journalists who I have a better relationship with others. The unashamedly pro-Union stance of the News Letter means that it occupies a unique place in the market and I find it is often the best outlet to get a story out.
3. Jim Allister is one of the few MLAs who utilises social media (and in particular Twitter) effectively- what are the benefits of communication through that medium in comparison to the traditional one of radio, newspapers and TV?
Jim controls his own twitter account. Very seldom is it anyone from the office. He is good with one liners and a master of memorable phrases so the medium is made for him. I have my own twitter account and often use it to bring a press release to an individual journalist’s attention. Both twitter and Facebook are an excellent way of getting information out to “friends” and followers and are particularly useful when it comes to keeping supporters of the party informed.
4. Do you have much contact with those working with other parties at Stormont? What would be the attitude of say a SF or DUP worker towards you?
I talk to all members and staff from democratic parties but don’t speak to Sinn Fein/IRA. Remember when all Unionists took that position?! I often speak to members of the UUP and DUP and have got to know some members of the SDLP, particularly through Jim’s work on the all-party Pro-life group.
With regards to the attitude of the DUP and SF to me – as I say I don’t speak to SF and if I see one of them coming behind me I’m not going to hold the lift. I have a civil relationship with the DUP but I think it will come as a surprise to anyone that we are not best mates.
5. You were one of the leading lights of the local pro-Union blogging scene for a while- what *tricks* did you learn from that, which you are able to use in your present position
I don’t think I was ever a leading light in blogging but I did enjoy building up a readership and using it as an outlet to articulate views which I didn’t feel were represented by the political parties at the time.I suppose looking back, it was the first time I started writing about political matters regularly as I was doing at least one post a day. My blog also had the quote from Gladstone (ironic for a Unionist blog I know) along the bottom which later became a sort of party motto for TUV – Nothing that is morally wrong can be politically right
6. Is it important that your politics are the same as the person you are working for (I am assuming that they are)?
That is vital as far as I am concerned. I am on exactly the same page as Jim on every major issue and really enjoy listening to his speeches in the Assembly when I am up in the party office because he makes the points which no one else ever will and which I think are vital. Coming from the same political position is important when you are drafting press releases and looking for information to expose.
7. Finally, a question more to you as a Unionist- as we stand at the end of 2012, what do you reckon the strengths, weaknesses, opportunties and threats facing N.Irish Unionism? How solid do you think the Union is on a UK-wide basis?
2012 has been a great year to be British. It was fantastic to be in London for the Jubilee celebrations and while I wasn’t there in person I took great pleasure in cheering on the athletes representing the UK at the Olympics. Then we had the fantastic celebrations of the Ulster Covenant centenary and I was able to attend a number of parades and events organised by the Orange Order which were superb. I would encourage your readers to visit the exhibition which is still on display in Schomberg House.
That said, I feel that events surrounding all of those occasions have highlighted the on-going campaign to strip Northern Ireland of its Britishness.
When Jim tried to table a motion calling for the restoration of a portrait of HM the Queen to public display in Stormont’s Great Hall the motion didn’t even reach the Order Paper. It is incredible that a portrait of the Monarch cannot be on public display in a devolved parliament in Her own kingdom and even more incredible that Unionists on the business committee did not ensure that the motion calling for its restoration was not debated. Equally, when Her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh came to Stormont they were not welcomed into the building. Why? Again I fear that it was all about avoiding offence to Sinn Fein.
Then we have the situation where athletes from Northern Ireland cannot represent the UK at the Olympics in many sports. I only became aware of this after we were contacted by Sandy Row Boxing Club but the same problem exists in sports like swimming and even rowing. Few people know it but the Coleraine rowers were only able to compete for the UK because they are members of rowing clubs on the mainland.
So while it is perfectly acceptable for someone to come up through the IFA youth system and then go off and play international football for the Republic, young people in many sports who see themselves as British are excluded from competing under the Union Flag on the word’s biggest sporting stage. As the Olympics demonstrated, sport is important when it comes to national identity and I feel this issue needs wider publicity and attention.
Finally, when it came to the Ulster Covenant parade in September, anyone who attended would be aware of the widespread disbelief and anger expressed by many ordinary people at the fact that the Union Flag was not flying from Parliament Buildings. I hope that this issue will soon be resolved and that we will see the Union Flag flying from the seat of devolved government 365 days a year but the fact that this was not already the case offended a lot of people.
I think it is incumbent upon Unionists to stop rolling over to Republicans and to start fighting for the rights and identity of their electorate. For far too long Unionists have sat back while the Britishness of our Province has been eroded. Their inaction, I believe, goes a long way towards explaining the protests which we have seen in recent days. Ordinary people are fed up with the symbols of their culture and their political identity being stripped away.
The root cause of all this is the Belfast Agreement. Indeed the Belfast Agreement denied the people of Northern Ireland the most fundamental of British rights – the right to democratic government. Only in Northern Ireland are we denied the right to have an opposition to hold the government to account and to vote a party out of office. This situation is made all the worse when we consider that some of those who now occupy perpetual places at the executive table are guilty of defending, and in some cases involvement in, the IRA’s terrorist campaign.
Put all that together and we have moved a very long way from the position my great grandparents went out to defend 100 years ago when they went to sign the Ulster Covenant which pledged them to defend for themselves and for their children their “cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom”.
So I feel that due to the Belfast Agreement there is a serious and on-going threat to Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. That is why I became involved with TUV when it was resurrected at St Andrews.
Moving on to Scotland, while it is difficult to know from a distance how things are going it does seem that the Nationalist campaign has become something of a shambles, particularly when it comes to the issue of EU membership. The opinion polls also seem to suggest that the Unionists will win comfortably.
However, I see a similar danger to Scotland’s place within the Union to that faced by Northern Ireland. Unless the Unionist parties get their act together and are able to remove the SNP from power in Holyrood there will still be a serious threat to Scotland’s long-term future within the Union. Nationalists will continue to use their position in government to loosen Scotland’s ties with the rest of the United Kingdom.
The campaign to see further fiscal powers devolved to Edinburgh is part of that. If you have a situation where Westminster is left with only foreign affairs and defence it will seem distant and remote to most people in the regions. So Unionists in Scotland, in my opinion, face two challenges. Firstly to win the referendum and secondly to defeat the SNP.Share on Facebook