Changing the conversation with e-petitions in Northern Ireland

As part of the Xchange Summer School, Mairaid McMahon announced the launch of e-petitions in Northern Ireland, which is scheduled to appear on the Northern Ireland Assembly website in September 2016.

She described the shortcomings of the current system of petitioning politicians, which included the need for support from an MLA — making them gatekeepers to what could be submitted.

There was also the matter of not know whatever happened to the physical petition documents.

Mairaid was motivated by the apparent success of e-petitions at Westminster. She told us about meeting “lots of people” at the Assembly, and making the case at its Procedures Committee to open up democracy.

While she found cross-party support, she felt that the reason why this instrument hadn’t happened yet here was simply because of apathy — no one was driving a process.

Mairaid boldly took up this role, engaging further with the public to gage support, through blogging and social media channels.

As explained in a recent Scope NI article, Mairaid founded the Make it Happen campaign and secured philanthropic grant funding, carrying out work in her spare time.

She thought that she might have to build a e-petition website herself, but thankfully the Northern Ireland Assembly will provide the service directly. Mairaid also said that this has been modelled on the Scottish Parliament’s service.

Mairaid described the procedure for initiating an e-petition. Admissibility criteria include:

  • 18 years of age and registered to vote in Northern Ireland
  • Not an MLA
  • Within the competence of the Northern Ireland Assembly (i.e. devolved matters)
  • Not sub judice, confidential, libelous, defamatory, vexatious, malicious, etc.
  • Not the same as another closed petition within the Assembly’s current mandate

After a petition receives the threshold of 100 signatures, it will be sent to the Assembly’s Business Office, which will notify the Assembly Speaker, appropriate legislative committee and Executive department. All signatories are also notified of this development.

The relevant Assembly committee will give the e-petition due consideration. Of course, nothing may come of this.

But the public will be able to monitor progress of all e-petitions, at the Assembly website, with the following categories:

  1. Currently open e-petitions (yet to reach threshold)
  2. Closed and under consideration
  3. Closed with a determination

In the audience, Paul Braithwaite described e-petitioning as both a challenge and opportunity for the voluntary and community sector: “When we lobby, we get asked, ‘Who do you represent?’ Now we can say exactly whom.”

Indeed, Mairaid added: “This is a good example of changing the conversation.”

Paul commended Mairaid on her achievement, and her final slide was a quotation from US President, John Kennedy: “One person can make a difference, and everyone should try.”

Yet Mairaid finished by naming various individuals and organisations that have supported her in her efforts,, and encouraged us all to set a reminder for the September launch!

Mairaid McMAHON presentation on e-petitions for Northern Ireland. Xchange Summer School, LIFE Church, Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Mairaid McMAHON presentation on e-petitions for Northern Ireland. Xchange Summer School, LIFE Church, Belfast, Northern Ireland.