Councillors are probably the one class of politician in Northern Ireland that is rendered invisible to the wider public, but considered invaluable to the average citizen. Almost completely powerless under current arrangements, and it could take up to three years before agreement is formed on what is to take it place, nevertheless, given all politics is local, councillors will undoubtedly take on an increasingly important role as MLAs shift roles from local advocate to legislator.About ten years ago in Britain, when the edemocracy debate was just getting going, it was suggested that the answer to the dot.com boom was that politicians would establish their own websites (not blogs, just site). Five years later, there were just seven politicians in the whole of the UK with their own websites. Things have moved on apace since prominent MPs like Boris Johnson, Clive Soley, Tom Watson and entered the blogosphere with some gusto. Even the British Foreign Secretary has his own blog these days.
In the Republic, Green Party leader and now Minister for the Environment John Gormley used his blog to scotch some media speculation in the middle of negotiations with Fianna Fail over entering government with Fianna Fail, and his YouTubed confrontation with the former Minister of Justice may well have contributed to his edging out of Michael McDowell in the ensuing poll in May.
In Northern Ireland however, politicians generally have been slow to engage with new media. Indeed, most of those who have (to our knowledge), are councillors, and there’s an interesting in the same council area: ie North Down: Marion Smyth, Ian Parsley, and Diana Peacocke. The Green MLA hasn’t got a blog, but is using Bebo, MySpace and Facebook.
I suspect the numbers are low, because of a lack of confidence in the politicians, and the perception that there is an attendant risk in letting public representatives speak for themselves online. In this respect, the clustering in North Down is probably indicative of how politicians from different parties can build confidence in one another.
In strategic terms it is impossible for parties to finance the kind of infrastructure need to ensure councillors have a voice. But in Britain and the Republic there are outstanding examples of people like Bob Piper and Damian Blake who have used free technologies to create an enhanced profile for themselves despite having relatively modest positions within their respective parties/polities.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty