Apologies for the delay in putting this piece up, I’ve been knocked for six over the last few days and am just getting myself back on track.
Below is my piece which featured in The Irish Times on Tuesday 21st of March; it is an interview with Cian O’Flaherty of Irishelection.com. The article was teamed with a piece on the importance of blogging in the 2007 Irish election by Liam Reid, political reporter for The IT; his piece follows my own below.
One blogger hopes to introduce a series of debates on election issues, he tells Adam Maguire
Cian O’Flaherty started blogging just last year through his site “Progressive Ireland”, and soon the UCD politics and philosophy student began to see increasing interest.
“The place has exploded. I personally blog on politics and current affairs; for me it’s a chance to air views that otherwise might not get an outlet. Most of the major interest and help has come from bloggers of a similar style. We get to take issues that matter to us and explore them.”
Finding readers interested in politics and current affairs was a plus, but finding a passionate group of similarly-minded bloggers opened up a whole new world for O’Flaherty. Not bound by editorial policy, not concerned with readership figures and not tied down by costs, a whole community of politically minded writers were finding a platform to discuss issues.
The problem with these types of large online communities is that they lack a hub; an epicentre to gather all relevant information. Enter the Irish Election Blog, www.irishelection.com, O’Flaherty’s latest project. “It’s an attempt to get Irish bloggers together in one site, collate their different views and ideas on the forthcoming election and provide a one-stop shop for those not au fait with blogging to pick up some independent commentary.”
The site has already attracted interest from those likely to be involved in next year’s general election. Liz McManus, deputy leader of the Labour party, provided a guest-post in honour of the site’s launch. She said: “While blogging is still at an early stage in Ireland in comparison to other countries, it is a growing trend. Many politicians aren’t aware of this medium as yet.”
A native of Kerry, O’Flaherty believes that most Irish politicians are only beginning to understand the benefits of blogging. “Politicians have been slow to adopt the web as a medium of communication. However, the rise of blogs has diversified to a large degree the discourse available online and hopefully this site can bring this difference to bear on the political system.”
The Election Blog allows any Irish blogger to post election-related pieces, regardless of length, subject or even bias. It could be a feature, a report or a rant, as long as it’s political. “I am hoping to introduce a series of debates between bloggers and politicians on issues affecting the upcoming elections. I also hope to commission some big-name bloggers who aren’t directly involved to do some comment pieces and perhaps get a few more posts from TDs and election candidates.”
So will this blog hold serious influence over the composition of the next government? O’Flaherty acknowledges that blogging won’t be as important here in 2007 as it was in the US two years ago. “The Irish political system is a creature of habit and less open to new ideas than other systems. Blogging will be at best on the fringes, reaching a smaller number of more dedicated voters looking to expand on issues.”
Although it won’t redefine Irish politics just yet, the Irish Election Blog hopes to have some impact. “First [ we hope] that it provides a wide audience to Irish bloggers,” says O’Flaherty. “Second, we hope that it generates high quality debate on the issues that this election is or isn’t talking about.”
Are Irish politicians ready for bloggers? They look set to become a force in the next election, writes Liam Reid, political reporter
It sounds unkind, but it is probably fair to say that the average TD or senator is not the most technically literate of people. Spending any time in Leinster House, a journalist learns that most TDs prefer the fax or the telephone to e-mail; better still a chat over a cuppa or a pint. Irish politics is still very much a world where presence at a funeral rather than on the web is seen as important.
Mention the word “blog” and some TDs are likely to ask if it is the new brand name for Bord na Móna briquettes. The main political parties might have impressive websites and use e-mail as a primary means of communication, but that is about as far as it goes. While they put huge resources into monitoring newspapers and radio phone-in shows around the country, the same cannot be said of the internet.
Politicians, party officials and indeed commentators and journalists are mostly oblivious to the growing army of Irish political bloggers, who are determined to emerge as a force in next year’s general election.
Short for web logs, blogs are normally personal websites, often in a diary format, updated regularly with whatever takes the blogger’s fancy. They exist in the “blogosphere” – the wider online community of web-logs and bulletin boards, where users post comments, photos and video, and share information generally.
In Ireland, this community is keen to replicate the situation that emerged in the US during the 2004 presidential election where the blogosphere became a significant player. Bloggers and an online campaign are credited with transforming Howard Dean from an outsider to a front-runner in the Democratic nomination race. In September of that year, bloggers on a conservative site, “Free Republic”, collated evidence which suggested a report by CBS 60 minutes, which had questioned the military record of President George W Bush, was based on forged documents. Not only did they kill the story, they turned the debate on its head and onto the conduct of the media. The bloggers were taken seriously by politicians, and enjoyed accreditation and access usually reserved for media.
In Ireland the blogosphere remains on the fringes of political life. Dr John Breslin, the computer scientist who created Boards.ie, the largest Irish internet bulletin board, is convinced that blogging and the internet will become a factor in Irish politics in the future. “They’re psyching themselves up for next year, that’s when they hope they are going to get noticed.” He cites the explosion of blogging among the Irish internet community, often known as the “bogosphere”. When he began monitoring the number of Irish blogs last year, there were about 100. Now there are more than 1,000, he believes, with more than 140 of them devoted to politics and current affairs.
There are only two TDs who have blogs, Liz McManus of Labour and Ciaran Cuffe of the Green party.
On Boards.ie, politics is always in the top five categories for messages and posts, after computer technology and soccer. But they have still to make any significant mark on the mainstream.
Dr Niall O’Dochartaigh, a political scientist at NUI Galway, says there are a number of key elements that need to exist for the blogosphere to become a factor in political life, the first being internet access. Despite the country’s high-tech reputation, broadband penetration is still lower than in many other Western countries. He also believes there needs to be a major event that will motivate people to seek information on the internet, and again this event could be the next general election. The third element is for the blogs to be providing good quality information, analysis or debate that is otherwise unavailable.
However, even with these conditions, he believes Irish bloggers may never enjoy the influence of those in the US, because of the size of Ireland. “It is still very much about face-to-face contact,” he explains. “A candidate for the Dáil can reasonably expect to personally canvass a good proportion of the electorate. That’s an absolute impossibility in the US so voters can be much more reliant on the internet for information.”
Dr O’Dochartaigh believes, however, that blogging will become increasingly important in Irish politics. He cites the Dublin riots last month as one of the first events in Ireland where these elements came together. It saw bloggers and internet users post large amounts of information, including photos and videos, onto websites in the aftermath of the incidents, a lot of which was not available through mainstream media.
In Northern Ireland, one blog has emerged as an essential reference tool for politicians, journalists and academics, and that is Slugger O’Toole. Established in 2002 by Mick Fealty, an England-based researcher and journalist, it quickly became a hub for the debate on the future of unionism. Fealty credits this partly to the fact that in 2003 he and his associates printed a pamphlet on unionism, which was distributed to every politician in Northern Ireland. Quality is a key element, he believes, pointing out that the pamphlet was the product of more than six months’ research and interviews.
This is one of the biggest challenges Irish political blogs have to surmount if they are to become influential, Fealty says. “They need to be good at what they do if they are to have an impact. People are not going to come back to a blog if what you’re posting is unreadable.”