From top: Green Party Leader and Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan, who recently performed a U-turn on the €58m Coonagh to Knockalisheen Road following an online campaign against the project; Heber Rowan
Effective political campaigns are hard. Often the decisions about what policies get changed are made on the basis of grassroots policy campaigning, asking for changes to something specific. That matters. In this essay, I will discuss online campaigning in Ireland.
Politics is defined by what and who complain effectively. The ‘why’ too.
“The squeaky wheel that makes the most noise, gets the most grease”, is often throw out in many refrains. It’s true though. Expressing a desire for action, change in a specific and measurable way consistently achieves change. Of course, not all the time and not for all things. Some problems like climate change, are fundamentally complex to solve given the many areas of life that would be impacted by dramatic policy action.
What often happens is that when a strategic group of concerned stakeholders are together in a form an alliance they often get what they want. Especially if they know what they are doing in the whole process that is.
In Ireland, we can often see that manifest as local resident groups getting together and highlighting their complaints about a local building development for example. They get together and tell their political representatives at local and national levels, ‘this matters to us and please pay attention to it or we won’t for you again in the future’. Now while planning decisions are decided by An Board Pleanala, getting the support of politicians to advise, vocalise and highlight their objections does matter. It politically matters.
While ministers in the government often feel comfortable enough on the back of their existing local political capital and support to withstand the price of making decisions in the national interest, they are always aware of who’s complaints to listen to most. As ultimately their skill at getting a sense of who they should listen to politically, helped get them in a position of political power in the first place. Next, the ability to discern why certain people or stakeholders should be heard matters. Who votes, who doesn’t vote and who would vote again.
We saw this back in 2008 when 15,000 Irish pensioners protested on the streets about the potential loss of their free medical cards. They were angry, clear in what they wanted and vocal. A quick U-turn occurred soon after the protests occurred as stressed parliamentary assistants told their deputies of the visceral protests they received. That’s politics, it responds because when not only enough people but certain people get together and fight for their representation. Indeed, a recent example on a smaller scale is the U-turn by transport minister Eamonn Ryan regarding a Limerick Motorway. This is normal stuff.
In campaigns, it’s about a balance the quality of your ask (is it clear and understandable) and the number of supporters. Is it tailored and single minded? i.e. not complicated.
So the reason I’m noting all of that is due to the restrictions the COVID-19 placed on public protests, political activism changed. In 2020, the reduced opportunities to protest in public made people change their approaches to campaigning. Yes, some protests still happened but the mass numbers on the streets didn’t happen in the traditional fashion. Like everything, things moved more online.
So for members of the Oireachtas, in any given day they receive a wide range of correspondence from the public, lobbyists and stakeholders of all sorts. They receive word of the ‘squeaky wheels’ by email, tweets, snail mail, calls, texts at all hours of the day. Their inboxes are public property. Too right, as it is their job to listen to what people are saying on many different issues and represent those views in the legislative authority of the land.
That said, how those communications or correspondence is delivered does matter. We’d have to have a formal survey or study on the matter in-depth to understand it more definitively from the politicians’ point of view, however, one might assume that the more personalised the correspondence, the more likely it will be responded to or acted upon.
A handwritten letter or a detailed email with clear evidence about an issue in need of representation takes time and effort to do. That gets noticed and if 10 or 1,000 people in the same day do the same on the same issue… you could bet it will get discussed.
The effective number of how many emails on an issue, how often or in what manner is a matter for research but from the public’s point of view having increased opportunities to support a cause matters. That is why organisations such as Uplift.ie and change.org have featured online ways of linking automated emails and pre-composed social media posts to great effect for a wide range of campaigns.
Many other organisations have created their own online methods for contacting TDs by linking handy constituency maps with their emails. The Wheel, the charities body used one for their budget campaign and public submissions on legislative consultations are facilitated by such methods. In essence, this lowers the costs of engaging in politics outside of elections. Accessible.
A recent tweet (above) by independent TD Cathal Berry (since deleted), expressed his frustration at receiving many emails from online campaign platforms. That rightly pissed a lot of people off, dismissing their interest in raising issues.
While on one hand, it is unsurprising that members of parliament receive a large amount of mail and sifting through them all takes time, but that is why they have staff to assist them. It goes with the territory of the job that they must receive petitions of concern on issues. Squeaky wheels are annoying though not until you put the grease where it is needed.
So going forward longer-term, there clearly will be more methods of campaigning even if COVID-19 didn’t happen. It is part of the process of changing methods of political participation. If postcards being mailed ‘cut the mustard’ in terms of getting results well that’s unfortunate because each individual campaign email sent represents someone saying, help change this.
The methods shouldn’t matter the most, the issues should.
Heber Rowan is a Sligo native with a passion for politics. He works in public affairs and enjoys listening to and narrating audiobooks. He can be found on Twitter and occasionally blogs on Medium.com.
Earlier: Heber Rowan on Tomorrow Tonight