Sentamu's bulldog to become top church spin-doctor

The Reverend Arun Arora has been appointed head of communications at Church House.

The smart money may be against him, but the Archbishop of York remains, at least in the minds of headline-writers, the favourite to succeed Rowan Williams at Canterbury next year.  So it's with some interest that I read that John Sentamu's former spokesman, the Rev Arun Arora, has been appointed head of communications at Church House, the Church of England's administrative headquarters.

Rev Arora, who is forty and a former solicitor, is currently leading a Christian outreach project in Wolverhampton called Pioneer Ministries.  But before that he was a church press officer for almost ten years, first for the Bishop of Birmingham and then (after his ordination) for the Archbishop of York.  In that position (which he called "one of the best jobs in the Church of England") he was once described as "a determined publicity-seeker for the archbishop".  In February this year, though no longer working for Sentamu, Arora wrote a post on his ministry blog in defence of the archbishop's decision to write for the Sun on Sunday.

He wrote that very few of Sentamu's critics in the church "would turn down the opportunity to preach the Gospel to 6 million people" and compared them to the pharisees who had condemned Jesus for associating with sinners.  And he went on to explain his approach to News International and the publicity opportunities it afforded:

As Sentamu’s former press officer it was one of my goals when I began in 2006 to make full use of the pulpit offered by both the Sun and the News of the World. From 2006 – 2009 numerous articles were placed on the precious op-ed page, often with accompanying editorials supporting the central message- usually but not always related to Easter or Christmas. Over time I established a good working relationship with Colin Myler, the then editor of the News of the World, his deputy and various people on the Sun, one of whom agreed to accompany the Archbishop in jumping out of an airplane to raise money for Paratroopers wounded in Afghanistan.

On the other hand, Arora did turn down an invitation for Dr Sentamu to appear on Celebrity Big Brother in 2006, saying that "We don't do celebrity."

Last month, Arora accused certain people within the church, and also media commentators of "besmirching" Sentamu. He wrote of "anonymous whispering" and coverage that was "in stark contrast to the way other bishops are being portrayed".  Some of this -- such as the comment of an unnamed don who had allegedly described Sentamu as "brutish" -- Arora attributed to "the naked racism which still bubbles under the surface in our society, and which is exposed when a black man is in line to break the chains of history."

Greeting the news of his new appointment, Rev Arora says that the church has "a fantastic story to tell of lives and communities being transformed by people in God through faith" and promises to publicise the work of a "largely unnoticed army of men and women" in parishes up and down the country.  It's a fair bet, however, that like his predecessors Arora will spend a high proportion of his time fending off stories about splits in the church, especially over the issue of sexuality.  His appointment, though, does perhaps signal that the C of E intends to be rather more pro-active in its media engagement than has sometimes been the case.

Of course, the process for appointing the Archbishop of Canterbury is in no way connected with that for choosing a director of communications for Church House.  But some might see today's news as some sort of omen.

 

Balloons are released as Dr John Sentamu becomes Archbishop of York, November 2005. Photograph: Getty Images
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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.