One of the most noteable developments is the movement online of Northern Ireland’s regional papers. Increasingly we (and, more often, the venerable Nuzhound) are as likely to pick up stories from the Impartial Reporter, the Portadown Times or the Ballymoney Times in tricking out the telling detail in some of the key stories of the last year. At the moment there is no such regular home for councillors, the lifeblood of local democracy. Increasingly so, since MLAs are now taking up new roles as legislators rather than the community representation role they’ve been accustomed to during the ‘interregnum’ of direct rule. The newly launched www.councillor.info site is an attempt to address that problem, by encouraging councillors to run their own websites. Barry McCaffrey is one of the first to pick up the story in the Irish News, with the headline writer rather colourfully describing them as ‘Slugger sites’.
Although Slugger is enthusiastically promoting the project, we actually have nothing to do with the delivery. The project has previously been road tested in English local authorities with some noteable successes. Bob Piper, now a commentator with considerable influence in English politics far beyond his own Labour Party, began his online career with www.councillor.info.
In fact the project is tightly bound by an Acceptable Use Policy so that it can only be used by councillors in their representative, rather than political function. It’s worth looking some of the sites that have been up and running for some time. Tony Martin, a councillor in Lancashire for instance is a regular user of the site. Mary Docker is a councillor in Sandwell in the English Midlands. All the focus and the information is intentionally local. And it is designed as a simple, relatively risk free, first step to bring councillors into the read/write age.
So why is Slugger such an enthusiastic supporter of the project?
As US Senator Tip O’Neill once famously said, “All politics is local”. Thus far Northern Ireland’s political parties have struggled to find the means, resources and will to give any meaningful online space to their most local, and in many regards their least ‘Political’ representatives. Or as another Irish politician, Edmund Burke put it, rather more grandly:
“…it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own.
“But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgement, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living.”
The project has had warm and enthusiastic support from all the major political parties. We at Slugger are keen to encourage any intiative that helps bolster representative democracy, particularly by leveraging the huge potential of the Internet.
We’ll be giving it a fair wind. =And we’ll be keeping an eye on it as it develops, spotlighting those councillors who run with the ball. We hope you will to.
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