What are the top 20 Irish political blogs?

Iain Dale has just asked me to try and repeat last year’s feat of spotting the top 20 Irish political blogs for his 2008 Guide to the UK and Ireland’s Blogosphere. I’ll be writing another overview (last year’s below the fold) of where we are at the end of another year. I know there have some good blogs getting into their stride since last year, particularly in Northern Ireland, but I also want to hear about new blogs from the Republic. So if you have a favourite blog that’s not been getting its due attention, let us know below. We’ll be taking Slugger out of the reckoning this year.State of the Irish Blogosphere
Mick Fealty

When I started my own blog on Irish politics back in June 2002, there was not really anything other than a single, global blogosphere, never mind one dedicated to national politics. Despite the usual hype, political blogging has been slow to take off in Ireland. Early adopters like Frank McGahon and Gavin Sheridan were as likely to discuss global issues of free market values, social justice or
climate change, as engage in any localised political issues or national conversation.

The irony is that few of these issues make it into the public discourse on either side of the border. Indeed, Irish politics is a strangely content free zone. Public figures and media performance easily outweigh policy in the estimation of political success. In Northern Ireland, politics has been dominated by one question and one question only for generations. The border: should it stay or should it go?

Unfinished business from the past that requires the reinforcement of tribal loyalties predominated. Now we have a government, which effectively has resulted in the political equivalents of Margaret
Thatcher and Neil Kinnock, pulling broadly in the same direction.

And the Republic suffers its own hangover from history. The superlative economic performance of the Celtic Tiger similarly arises from the Tallaght Agreement of the late 1987: a bilateral accord between government and opposition to sponsor stringent fiscal control of central government. Irish politics since then has been largely been a post ideological affair.

In contrast to the great two party contests of the UK and the US where the influence of blogging has made itself felt both inside and outside party debate of that kind that has driven the Daily
Kos, or Conservative Home. There are few easily grabbed political binaries that can enervate contending blocs of supporters/commentators. Accordingly blogging has largely taken hold amongst the politically unaligned, or the ideological fringes. Both the small Labour Party, the right of centre Progressive Democrats and the Greens have all embraced blogging with a will. The larger, more traditional parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, have up to now, given it a pass.

Further, on both sides of the border, elections are run on the single transferable vote system, which tends to fragment party allegiances and puts strong emphasis on tending the local vote, than
on developing strong policy focused identities. An MLA or TD can expect to be returned mostly on the basis of what they personally have been seen to deliver locally, than on their performance in
the house as orator, government scrutiniser or law maker.

Compared to the US, where the blogs like the Drudge Report and Instapundit have been generating real impacts for some years now the Irish blogosphere has been slow to galvanise. If you con-
sider that mainstream UK blogging is something like two or three years behind the States, then Ireland must be a good two or three years behind Britain. Some of the reasons for that lag are clearly
cultural, but there are some technological reasons why we have been slow to reach critical mass.

Cork blogger Damien Mulley believes broadband is crucial to the development of an Irish online culture. “Broadband is an ‘always-on’ technology, and so is blogging. When you have a thought you can blog it quickly and then spend time reading around the subject on other sites and blogs. Dial-up is more like an SAS operation: get on, do your post, and get off again.”

Although Northern Ireland was the first European region to have 100% broadband connectivity, the Republic lags badly. In 2005 42 percent of Irish households had internet access. At the same
time in Britain, it was 55%. Building critical mass, has been long and slow.

American journalist Jay Rosen believes that the key strength of political bloggers doesn’t lie in breaking stories, but in their capacity to endlessly mull over detail and nuance. In the wake of Lott’s
departure, he noted that the blogosphere spent hours, days and weeks “sifting through information, rescuing facts and arguments from the news cycle’s strange habits, while loosening up the lines
of debate”.

There have been a number of stories snagged like this in Ireland. The Robert McCartney murder case broke through the mainstream press, but several Dublin journalists I have spoken to
believe that extensive and intensive coverage in the blogosphere at the time helped give the story detail and legs that took his sisters’s campaign for justices from the narrow confines of his East Belfast home, to the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis (party conference), and eventually to the Whitehouse. It was a story some of the interested parties would have preferred to have stayed local, and buried.

The Dublin riots last year were captured brilliantly on Flickr, with dozens of citizen photographers on hand to provide evidence that quickly disabused the hastily assembled mainstream journal-
istic impression that the rioters were both politically organized and large in number. It demonstrated the sheer richness of content available online, and was one of the first events that began to draw
the tiny Irish political blogosphere together.

Accordingly Irish online discourse has tended to cluster around single big tent sites, like Slugger in Northern Ireland and a decidedly non blog forum, politics.ie, in the Republic. But the Irish General Election probably made people aware of one another more than actually galvanised a readership and, at last, gave the blogosphere a taste of the kind of audiences routinely drummed up by the mainstream media.

One bespoke blog, Irishelection.com saw its audience, usually in the low thousands per day, spike at over 100,000 visits on a single day knocking most of its rivals for six. They used Twitter to
deliver news and results to watchers around the world for free, and had voice and text reports from count centres from all around the country. It has also played a role in highlighting the phenom-
enon in the mainstream. Three of the most useful new blogs came from national journalists.

The blogosphere has a capacity to generate powerful and cogent analyses through the collective sharing of facts, sifting evidence and generation of relevant expert opinion in ways that mainstream
media institutions cannot compete with: and, perhaps, in ways that mainstream politicians would rather they didn’t. Ireland, with its traditional predilection for clientism and populism, faces
a modern world that is becoming unremittingly complex, and a population that is also growing, both in numbers and complexity.

As we go to print, the controversy over the decision of a newly privatized Aer Lingus to switch operations from Shannon to Belfast is being written about much more coherently online than
in any of the country’s print or broadcast media. In indicates that the blogosphere has the capacity to inflect a serious note into Irish politics. It’s surely time to step up a gear – and put our politicians
on their mettle by rigorously testing them on what they actually do, rather than what they say they are going to do.

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