Tail wagging the dog at last? Campaigners out to change the doorstep agenda

It was recently pointed out by Newton Emerson on The View that young people don’t vote and, when they do, they follow their parents’ lead. A necessary generalisation, of course, but it identifies one of a number of reasons why people in Northern Ireland will regularly malign their representation on The Hill but still return the same parties time and again. This is especially true in cases of a tactical vote against a particular party or when strength of feeling on the Union/ United Ireland overrides serious accountability on everyday issues.

In 2016 those behind campaigns such as marriage equality, the abortion debate, public sector cuts and better cycling provision have made direct appeals to voters to put their concerns at the forefront of their mind in the voting booth as opposed to allowing the agenda to be framed by those on their doorstep. In some cases, impressive use of social media and data have been used to put existing MLAs very starkly in the spotlight, stripped bare of their party backing and glossy election materials.


Meanwhile high profile campaigns such as Save The Sunflower, Stop The Drill and Hospitality Ulster’s work on licensing hours will have some wondering if their party of choice was anywhere to be seen when a real issue of very local concern arose close to home. And the DUP has been singled out by @yesequality2016 campaigners raising voter awareness of how Petitions of Concern are used against marriage equality in Northern Ireland.


This year, particularly impressive have been great efforts by pro-choice members of Belfast Feminist Network as well as NI Greenways – and there will be other examples – to use social media and clearly-presented data to arm those so-inclined to take their arguments about individual issues directly to the candidate on their door.

The Belfast Feminist Network members have produced, and distributed, a list of every MLA candidate and their detailed position on abortion.

Meanwhile, Greenways NI (supported by Cycling UK and Sustrans NI) has been using social media to release some beautifully-presented data, complete with ongoing updates and individual candidate comments as well as totals by party, showing how individual MLAs have replied to an approach from no less than campaign backer Jon Snow about promotion of cycling infrastructure in Northern Ireland. Greenways NI also use Twitter to excellent effect at @nigreenways.




From a personal point of view, there’s a very clear pattern of parties and candidates who show up for the ground-level issues that matter to me and this will be among the factors at the forefront of my mind on election day. Great efforts are being made in 2016 by a number of groups to try to encourage as many people as possible to do likewise.

It is one thing to constantly berate and belittle our MLAs and parties on The Nolan Show, it is another for voters to think twice about who we put there – and on what agenda – in the first place.

I’ve enjoyed seeing the efforts of the likes of Belfast Feminist Network members and NI Greenways to try to make the tail start to wag the dog in Northern Ireland by encouraging voting based less on party loyalty and more on the views and performance of the candidate on the doorstep.

Long may it continue.

*Images from @yesequality2016 and Election Cycle 2016 used with permission.

Conor Johnston – @CJohnstonNI – writes about subjects including culture (especially film/ cinemas), identity and media. He also blogs at www.freerangewords.net

  • mickfealty

    As an older dad myself, I think Newton is expressing a hope, crossed with lived experience. Over one generation we cannot undo the cultural binding of generations.

    But consistent with ‘Amara’s law’ (look it up?) I’d say we tend to overestimate the effect of social change in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

  • aquifer

    If the single issue campaigns all do this kind of thing big parties could be in trouble when waving flegs used to get their votes. Are MLAs’ voting records online?

  • Heather Richardson

    The voting record is usually somewhere deep in the bowels of the Assembly website, but it can be hard to navigate. You need to know the date of a specific vote, and its title (which is sometimes quite different from the shorthand used to describe it in the media). We’re dependent on kindly political anoraks who will put in the time to collate voting records.

  • And another example from the Irish News this morning of local groups trying to publicly pin candidates down on their own issues, on their own terms: http://www.irishnews.com/news/assemblyelection/2016/04/29/news/sdlp-says-premature-to-sign-sperrins-anti-mining-pledge-502076/?param=ds441rif44T

  • Teddybear

    Single issues are all very well but a country can’t governed by a set off incoherent activities

    If you had a referendum asking people if they wanted to pay more tax the result would be No

    If you then had a referendum asking people if they wanted to build 50 new hospitals, they’d vote Yes

    Both results contradict each other

    I know single issues and the usual middle class teenagers/students-dressing-up-as-poor-people who like to protest a lot seem with-it and involved but government is about 360degree stewardship, not running between discrete wooden posts of short term popularity

  • Point taken, especially re the hospitals example, however voters are entitled to know the candidate’s position on – say – abortion or protecting built heritage and responding as they wish accordingly. I think efforts to arm voters will more information can only be welcomed.

    I don’t think your description of protestors applies to any of the campaigns mentioned in the piece as they enjoy support from a range of people: ie, abortion, Stop the Drill etc producing strong support from those not usually involved in protest/ campaigning.

  • In the example of the abortion views spreadsheet I think the researchers also used comments made by existing MLAs in Stormont to add extra detail to the data – it is pretty powerful to think that a candidate could be confronted with their exact words on an issue of the voter’s chosing on a doorstep.

  • Ian James Parsley

    Best piece on here in a long time.

    To play devil’s advocate, though, much in line with Teddybear… what is essentially happening is we are moving from one single issue where positions are taken emotionally rather than rationally to a raft of other single issues where the same thing applies.

    An example today is the mining issue in the Sperrins. Now, I think the SDLP deserve to be trounced for embracing educational segregation, social conservatism and fraudulent uncosted manifesto pledges, but in this case its candidate is taking the responsible position – taking time to consider all the evidence – and being vilified for it. Meanwhile candidates who have never been near the area are being applauded for a kneejerk response they knew would get them coverage.

    That is precisely the problem with our politics!

    And so it is with all the other issues, just as with the constitutional question. If you’re not with us, you’re against us. If you’re not Unionist, you’re Nationalist; if you’re not Nationalist, you’re Unionist. If you’re not for the ’67 Act, you’re against women; if you agree a 14-year-old raped by her father should have access to an abortion, you’re a child murderer.

    That’s before you get to the straw men – if you believe public sector workers should contribute more towards their own pensions so the rest of us who don’t have anything like the same pensions provision don’t have to out of our taxes, apparently you don’t want high quality public services…

    We don’t live in a world that is black and white like that, and candidates are therefore not competing to govern a black and white world. The truth, and the responsible position, almost always lies in the grey – in the detail, in the complexity… in, dare I say it, moderation.

    But single-issue campaigns don’t allow for detail, complexity or moderation. They offer false choices in a society which is genuinely and legitimately diverse in opinion as well as background. Therefore I think they are fundamentally bad for democracy.

  • A fascinating insight and much appreciated Ian, although I see the efforts of the likes of NI Greenways as more a case of equipping voters with more information about issues of concern to that voter (if they choose) ahead of polling day.

    All concerns and points very much taken, although I’d suspect that this type of campaigning by groups is here to stay and creates work for the candidates to do locally/ on the doorstep to engage and best communicate their position. It also, at least, has the voters talking to the candidate on engaging new issues of immediate concern as opposed to solely party politics etc.

  • Reader

    We could do with a local version of this:
    [Edit] there’s partial information on MLAs here, but the real meaty detail is for MPs.

  • Croiteir

    I am glad that you have brought this to our attention, but it has been happening for a very long time. The pro life group Precious life have been doing it for many years now, they distribute a list of those politicians with their stances on the heinous crime of abortion, indeed the St Josephs pro life group in Dungannon have been accredited with the demise of Michelle Gildernew at the last election. I am glad to see the extreme in the Belfast Feminist Network contributing to this process of flushing out those who try to get that destructive policy implemented here.

  • Graham Parsons

    Thanks for providing the link to the Belfast Feminist Network analysis. Now I know precisely who the women haters are I can cast my vote with confidence.

  • doopa

    The evidence from switzerland would suggest that when asked to vote on tax increases the population will do so.

  • NI Greenways

    Thanks for the chance to discuss this – the article and the points made so far.

    From the perspective of the Election Cycle exercise, it felt like a natural extension of ordinary day-to-day political campaigning. No doubt @disqus_RjTAhrWYY0:disqus is correct to say it’s important to provide voters with as much detail on both party stances and individual candidates’ views on hot topic issues (whether cycling investment is that ‘hot’ I’d question) but there’s something else going on.

    I don’t think it’s right (in terms of cycling investment) to class this as a black-and-white issue to the necessary exclusion of other issues @ianjamesparsley:disqus. Cycling in political terms 10 years ago was a narrow ‘green’ issue given scant regard by the big fish. A more professional and dedicated (volunteer) campaigning effort in recent times has moved the discussion on from knocking on the door asking “can we please invest?” to a seat at the table discussing “how much will we invest and on what?” Getting voters engaged helps.

    One of the key aims, perhaps not given enough weight in the assessment above, is the deliberate education of and engagement with the political class, who may not have the working knowledge to make judgements on ‘niche’ issues. When we ask for support for a particular stance, we offer background information, the option to read more, form their own views and allow as much space for candidates to respond as they need.

    Both the response rates (50% of all 276 candidates as of this morning) and the positive backing for the aims (all above 90%) at the very least puts this issue somewhere it has never been before in Northern Ireland (see graphic below). Relentless, positive campaigning can take a previously ignored issue and begin to weave it into every party’s thinking, aims, and (here’s the rub) their thoughts when it comes to negotiating a Programme for Government.

    I can’t reasonably influence that part, but the work put in by Cycling UK, Sustrans NI, myself, ordinary folk chasing up their candidates for views, coupled with the position we’ve worked hard to get to with manifesto inclusions, is the best chance we’ve ever given ourselves.


  • colmh

    Okay I’ll say it: I would happily pay more tax if it was used efficiently to fund the health service, infrastructure etc.

    Unfortunately I trust our politicians about as far as I could throw them.

  • Ian James Parsley

    Actually I would not regard NI Greenways as a single-issue campaign.

    Greenways have broader value – health, environment even economy (cafes springing up along routes etc). Nor is it a clinical “either/or”.

    But yes, points all taken!

  • Rachel W

    I would argue with your contention that folks who vote on a single issue or a combination of single issues (e.g. environmental protection, abortion, marriage equality) are by definition, not voting rationally. With due respect, for you to honestly believe that, you have to live a generally privileged life where you aren’t directly affected by matters of basic social justice.

    Environmental conservation, marriage equality and abortion are issues which have a direct impact on the lives of people in Northern Ireland. Perhaps they’re too “emotional” for you, but for many of us, they are the difference between staying in Northern Ireland and wanting to leave.

    Thousands of women every year have to travel to England for abortions or have them at home using Mifepristone and Misoprostol purchased online. That will not cease until NI politicians realise that we do need the 1967 Abortion Act or equivalent legislation in Northern Ireland. So the Alliance Party, UUP and others can hide behind conscience stances/defending the present law but quite frankly they shouldn’t be surprised when voters turn around and tell them their inertia isn’t cutting it.

    I wish my reproductive rights weren’t denied in this country, so I too could get to play ‘devil’s advocate’ about key healthcare issues, like you do.

  • Ian James Parsley


    You’ve rather demonstrated my point there.

    Never did I write those issues don’t matter. I wrote that they are more complex than a straight “either/or”.

    Marriage equality: I am in favour of same-sex marriage with an opt-out for religious institutions – a specific stance, not just an “either/or”. In order to achieve this, I would argue that the UK Government needs to intervene to stop abuses of the Petition of Concern – a specific means of accomplishing the outcome, not just yelling on Twitter.

    Abortion: I am in favour of Northern Ireland legislation (not 1861 Act or 1967 Act but 2016 Act) allowing any woman to choose whether or not she wishes to be pregnant – again, a specific stance. But this will not be achieved politically this decade so, pending law reform, I would argue in order for decriminalisation and allowing abortion in case of fatal foetal abnormality – a specific achievable outcome rather than just yelling on Twitter.

    But you see, you didn’t bother to read what I wrote and you didn’t bother to ask me for my position, which is probably similar to yours.

    Instead you just yelled at me. That doesn’t move your cause forward one inch. That is exactly where “either/or” single-issue politics gets us – nowhere.

  • Ian James Parsley

    A classic example.

  • Reader

    Obviously, your point concerns the word “efficiently”. Quite right too.
    Other people might add “How much more tax?”.

  • Kev Hughes

    Hmmmm, reminds me of the PACs in the US trying to tie down candidates.

    It’s a nonsense and middle-class NIMBYism at it’s very best.

    If I was an MLA or candidate I would not sign a thing such as this, ever.

  • Artemis13

    They contacted each candidate as well, so comments in the foot notes section are often from replies from candidates. In lieu of replies I think they may have used debate quotes, but it is all set out in the spreadsheet.

  • Artemis13

    Aye, that’s who turns up at protests. *eye roll*. There are huge grassroots working class movements which support social justice, with participants of all ages from varied walks of life.

  • Artemis13

    Abortion reform is my deciding factor for who to cast my vote for this election. It is a rational, well thought out, and researched position – it isn’t emotional. I will take incremental change when we get it and continue to fight for decriminalisation of abortion. The spreadsheet linked in this blog does go some way to show the complexity of positions, giving 3 broad areas for reform, but also comments from candidates.

  • Artemis13

    I don’t think Rachel yelled…she didn’t even use caps :p

  • Rachel W

    I didn’t yell at all. I expressed my justified frustration at your suggestion that treating support for pro-choice abortion reform (the Abortion Act 1967 is a useful benchmark on that issue) as irrational.

    Again, with respect, if groups like Alliance for Choice and Belfast Feminist Network hadn’t been calling for the *specific outcome* of extending the Abortion Act 1967 to Northern Ireland, it wouldn’t have become an actual election issue for at least another 10 years.

    So forgive me if I’m reluctant to take lectures from someone who wilfully misses the point and tries to tell pro choice campaigners how to do activism. If I were to describe your tone, it would be “Feminists, you’re doing it wrong! Let me tell you how to seek your own liberation! You’ll get nowhere with this calling out politicians business!”

    Rather than defending parties and politicians whose policies uphold the status quo with empty arguments like “it’s not an either/or” issue, perhaps support those trying to move the needle on abortion? Punch up, not down.

  • Cavehill

    There are huge grassroots working class movements in Northern Ireland? I’m a frequent protest-goer and you see the same 300 or so faces at all of them. Sometimes there’s a bigger protest and some passers by come along like the anti-racism protests in summer 2014 or the conscience clause protest of summer 2015, but let’s not kid ourselves that the number of people willing to mobilise is anything close to ‘huge’.

  • Many thanks for this Jonathan, it is much appreciated.

    Mick Fealty has noted elsewhere that, while we haven’t quite moved on from sticking flags on our politics, policy is becoming more important. So I’d say information for voters and others on actual issues becomes very important.

    One of the older hands could correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve noticed something different this time around about how groups such as NI Greenways and others are using social media to bypass all else and appeal to candidates and their voters directly.

    For me it is timely for the increased focus on actual policy Mick referred to and – as someone who prefers politics of the less flag-waving kind – has been a pleasure to see, especially the quality of the likes of your own campaign.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    But it’s there nonetheless. I have seen quite a number of colleagues at some of these events (inc summer 2014 anti racism) that I would not necessarily expect to see e.g. the politically apathetic, those from ghettoes etc. A sense of social injustice transcends sectarianism and the poltically marginalised.

  • Artemis13

    The recent protest at the sentencing of the woman for procuring her own abortion had well over 300 people! Even in the pouring rain Reclaim.the Night last year had around.300, probably not the “usual faces’ that you see. International women’s as many women’s centres participating, a lot from working class areas, calling for the implementation of UNSCR 1325 last year. The Equal Marriage and anti racism rallies were huge and that’s great! BFN, were there too, alongside many groups and people who weren’t middle class or students! The PUP and PBP spoke at the anti racism rally iirc.

  • Cavehill

    In a society of 1.2million over 300 people isn’t huge.