Politicians who miss net boat could miss vote

17 Apr 2007

Irish politicians who fail to embrace new media such as the internet, email, blogging and even social networking sites like YouTube are in danger of losing out on a vast number of younger people in their twenties and thirties who feel passionate about core issues but are stuck in traffic or too hard at work to be listened to.

In the run-up to the forthcoming elections, political blogging site Irishelection.com is to hold the Online Irish Politics Awards to recognise politicians, parties, non-government organisations and campaigners who made the best use of the internet to engage young voters.

In recent years politicians have bemoaned the aging demographic of Irish voters as younger voters apparently lack the time and the interest in the issues of the day.

The successes and excesses of Celtic Tiger Ireland with cash-rich, time-poor citizens and full employment has also led to an untapped electorate of disaffected people with young families who feel angry about issues like health, affordable housing, commuting, crime and the environment.

Decisions at a political level, they feel, are being made to suit an increasingly alien middle-class, middle-aged populace interested more in buying their second home than the “right here, right now” needs of a younger populace frustrated by poor infrastructure and rising costs.

The election year 2007 will be remembered as the year that electioneers took to the internet as a serious platform to reach Ireland’s missing electorate. Some have taken to blogging while others have taken awkwardly to putting videos up on YouTube, creating much mirth in the Irish media.

Irishelection.com’s Cian O’Flaherty told siliconrepublic.com: “Sniggering journalists aside, it is absolutely cynical of them to deride politicians for not engaging the young voter and then at the same time deride them for concentrating on the older voter. The idea behind the Online Irish Politics Awards is to highlight what’s been done and done well.”

In terms of the cyber activities of our electioneers O’Flaherty says some political parties have been very active in using new media while others have been very staid and press released. “That said there is a lot of good quality out there.”

He points to one hot bed of activity, East Meath, where three politicians have something of a bloggers’ turf war on their hands. “East Meath has three politicians blogging furiously – Labour’s Dominic Hannigan, Fianna Fail’s Thomas Byrne and independent AJ Cahill. They don’t refrain from taking cuts at each other either.”

Asked what format the awards will take, whether they will be by a judging panel or a public online vote, O’Flaherty said the issue is being decided and that it might be a combination of the two methods. “It makes sense if the people do the nominating rather than looking at abstract criteria. The judging panel will then decide on the top five performers in each category.”

The awards will be given under the following categories: Best Political Party Website, Best Website of a TD/Senator/Councillor, Best Youth Politics Site, Best Specialist Politics Website and Best Election Campaign Video.

O’Flaherty said he believes the current use of internet blogs and viral campaigns by nominees for the US Democrats’ candidacy elections is serving as an inspiration to some but not others. “The internet is not going to go away and if anything offers politicians new ways to engage with voters.

“In Ireland it is all about local networking. But for many politicians, their constituents are away from home and commuting to and from work for the best part of a week. They should be looking at the web and email as a way of getting citizens to use their local representative as he/she should be used rather than just for reference.

“Someone working in Dublin and living in Kells won’t have time to go to their local politician’s clinic. So email may be just the thing. These are simple lessons that politicians should be learning. They cannot escape the fact that technology is a democratising force.

“While it may make tactical sense to focus on the older voter for the near-term, strategically it is unsound because the younger voters of today are the ones you would want to be focusing on. This is where the web is an important tool. More and more people are starting to read blogs.

“They are potentially losing out on a market of voters who feel passionately about issues and disillusioned because decisions aren’t being made that matter to them. Politicians risk not only missing the boat but missing the vote.

“That younger voters are being ignored is a vicious cycle that will haunt us in time. Young people are spending time online, it is a primary communications tool for them and politicians need to come online and communicate,” argued O’Flaherty.

By John Kennedy