Perception and reality

If I told you there's a perception amongst some that the Apollo astronauts never landed on the moon, but instead participated in an audacious hoax, you might think I'm simply reporting on far fetched conspiracy theories.

If I sought a meeting with the bosses at NASA to tell them they had a duty to prove their astronauts really did walk on the moon, you might conclude I'm lending credence to the "perception".

This week Peter Robinson and other unionists raised questions over the courts' handling of recent bail decisions. When challenged over whether they were impinging on the judiciary's independence, the politicians took refuge in the defence that the "perception" is widely held within their community so ought to be addressed.

The Lord Chief Justice's Office responded by acknowledging that public representatives were entitled to voice criticism of court decisions. However a senior official added that judges should not be subjected to improper external influence.

In practice, defining the difference between reasonable criticism and improper influence may prove every bit as difficult as drawing a precise line between perception and reality.

Responding to criticism of his intervention from the NIO Minister Mike Penning, Peter Robinson insisted he wouldn't be silenced when he sees the need to speak. To give unionists their due, by invoking the "perception" of bias in the courts at least they've taken a slightly more sophisticated line than Sinn Fein politicians who didn't qualify their previous assertions that the PSNI is engaging in "political policing".

Unionists weren't the only ones dealing in perceptions this week. Giving evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the Secretary of State Theresa Villiers acknowledged there may not be a lot of direct evidence that local political donors would be under threat if their names are published. But she added that the perception they could be at risk exists and has to be addressed.

Recent threats to Martin McGuinness, Conall McDevitt and many other politicians demonstrate local politics remains a risky business. However those who want the identity of political donors revealed point out that people had to sign politicians' nomination papers during countless elections throughout the troubles. And those names were open to public view. So why, they argue, should party donors feel themselves at particular risk?

During some feisty exchanges with lobbyists from Friends of the Earth, the Upper Bann MP David Simpson argued that the risk to donors could not be compared to the position of those who signed election papers for candidates. Mr Simpson asked the lobbyists to put themselves in the shoes of a unionist sympathising businessman in South Armagh. How would they feel?


Friends of the Earth countered that Northern Ireland shouldn't be regarded as a place apart, citing examples, like the stabbing attack on Labour MP Stephen Timms, when politicians in Great Britain have been under direct threat. The Upper Bann MP didn't seem convinced.

A lot of store was set on evidence from the Ulster Unionists that unnamed businessmen had asked them not to send thank you letters in case this compromised their anonymity. Interestingly no-one mentioned one significant Newry businessman who wasn't deterred from making massive donations to the Conservatives, even though his name was widely publicised. Lord Ballyedmond's generosity towards David Cameron and his predecessors is a matter of public record.

Some witnesses before the committee suggested the police might play a role in assessing whether donors' perception that they may be under risk was based on reality.

However, the Secretary of State appeared reluctant to go down this road, as it could drag the police into highly contentious political territory.

But Theresa Villiers said the police might well be consulted in the future for their general security assessment should the government decide to opt for the publication of donations to parties.

In fact it's a wonder the argument about risks to donors has gone on so long without the PSNI already having been asked for their advice.

One interesting piece of evidence came from the Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Sir Christopher Kelly, who deduced from the evidence given by the Stormont parties that none of them were in receipt of individual donations over the reporting threshold of £7500.

In that case, Sir Christopher surmised, the debate about whether such gifts should be publicised might be largely academic. That's his "perception". But for now - with so little information about Northern Ireland party funding out in the open - we'll have to wait a while before we can work out how that perception matches up to reality.