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14 March 2013

Time for e-petitions at the Northern Ireland Assembly?

Time for e-petitions at the Northern Ireland Assembly?

We all like to be heard. It’s in our nature, we value the opportunity to articulate and voice our opinions. A key freedom in any democracy is just this - the ability of the people to have their voices heard by their government.

The recent flags fallout has brought this right to the fore of public debate in Northern Ireland. Aside from a perceived threat to identity, one of the major concerns raised by the protestors has been that no-one has listened to them and no-one is representing them. There has been much talk of a communication gulf between certain parts of the community and the political decision-makers. This feeling of detachment and abandonment, especially in areas of deprivation, is not unique to one community inside or outside of Northern Ireland.

One simple way for the public to voice their opinion on an issue is through a petition. An online petition system, or ‘e-petition’ was set up in Westminster in August 2011. This allows anyone to start a petition on any issue. If the number of signatories reaches 100,000 the petition is considered for a Parliamentary debate in the House of Commons. The steps are simple to follow and anyone with internet access can start a petition. A similar system has been established in the Houses of the Oireachtas, the seat of the Irish Senate.

In eight months between August 2011 and a review on 14 May 2012, there were 14.3 million visitors to the Westminster epetition site, an average of 52,000 per day. On 10 August 2011, one of the days following the riots in London and other English cities the site received 333,000 hits per hour. It’s clear that there is appetite for this type of public engagement with politics.

Obviously and importantly, there are some restrictions to stop us becoming ruled by an X-Factor-style Government. To name a few, the issue must fall within the remit of the Government, it must not be defamatory or offensive in nature and it must call for action, not merely be a statement. It is also important to note that when an epetition reaches the quorum it is only considered for a parliamentary debate. So this is not a dictation of the Government’s time and resource by popular opinion. This is not a perfect system, the limitations that are required to regulate it simultaneously restrict some of it’s potential. It is however an opportunity for anyone and everyone’s voice to be heard in the public square.

The Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland is calling on the Northern Ireland Executive to introduce a similar mechanism through which the people of Northern Ireland can create and present petitions to the Assembly. At the moment there is no such system here. It would need some tweaking and careful consultation; for example the number of signatures required to meet the threshold would clearly need to be proportional to our population.

Like any single policy proposal this is no silver bullet. It will not bridge the gap between the electorate and the elected but it could help to improve communication and increase confidence between community and Government. It could be a useful tool in the Cohesion Sharing and Integration strategy for Northern Ireland by giving a voice to marginalised voices and communities. It will increase citizen interaction and could help elected representatives to hear more clearly those issues which are important to the people they represent. For community groups, charities and individuals this is a cost-effective and strategic tool with which to build a campaign and raise awareness of important issues. This is not a ‘petition of concern’ but a petition of opportunity.

As followers of Jesus we value freedom, the freedom to speak truth and to be heard. But this is not about Christians narrowly trying to seek something for themselves. This is about seeking the welfare and wellbeing of all in our society about giving voice to everyone, especially the poor and marginalised. Let’s create the opportunity for anyone in Northern Ireland to become a catalyst for change.   

   Photo credit: Wknight94 via Creative Commons