E petitions: bringing politics to the people

3 Jun 2016 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 3 Jun 2016

Mairaid McMahon

Scope talks to Mairaid McMahon who has single-handedly paved the way for people in Northern Ireland to have a greater say in government. 

From September e-petitions, which have proved highly successful in other parts of the UK, will be introduced in Northern Ireland and on June 16 Mairaid will be holding a workshop at the Xchange Summer School which takes place at the LIFE Church in Belfast to explain how they work and how they can be used.

Until recent reforms take hold, petitioning Stormont could only be done in physical, rather than digital, form and required support from an MLA. These changes will give everyone – including charities and social enterprises – an easier pathway to get their voice heard in the Assembly Chamber.

Mairaid has as good an understanding of how government actually works as anyone. Earlier in her career she was private secretary to two ministers: under direct rule she served the late Paul Goggins and then went on to work for David Ford when policing and justice were devolved. She therefore knows the decision-making process both at Westminster and Stormont.

A private secretary manages the minister’s activities, acting as a funnel to prioritise his or her work and liaising with those wishing to engage with the office. This gives unprecedented insight into how decisions are reached and the factors that influence them.

Mairaid said: “Civil servants’ briefings are excellent, and of necessity very factual and dispassionate. But policy is also about people. It affects them.  And Ministers are human beings too. I think it is good for them to understand how their policies impact on people. It is also good for democracy to increase their engagement with the public and I believe that the public have a right to influence government. “

She gives an example of a project she worked on in the Justice Department. Until comparatively recently the names and addresses of everyone who is on the Electoral Register is visible to anyone else. But there can be all sorts of legitimate reasons why people might not want that, particularly if that threatens their personal security.  The law has now been amended so that anonymous entries are permitted in special circumstances. It’s just one small example of how much a piece of legislation can impact people in ways most of us would never consider.

Research from the Hansard Society shows that the general public are much more likely to sign a petition than engage in any other form of political activity apart from voting. It is therefore an important way of getting people directly involved in policy.

They were set up for Westminster in 2006 and although an unnamed minister was quoted at the time as describing them as an own goal thought up by a “prat” they have proved enormously popular. Some of them have been spoofs – like the one which attracted 50,000 signatures asking for Jeremy Clarkson to be appointed Prime Minister but there have been many successes for petitioners as well, an early example being the impact of one signed by 1.7 million people calling for the government’s then road pricing policy to be scrapped.

Petitions have a long history: both universal male suffrage and the abolition of slavery were both issues originally introduced by petitions.

But when Mairaid looked into the situation in Northern Ireland she was surprised to discover that there was no facility for e petitions.

Currently petitions have to be sponsored by an MLA who delivers them to the Speaker, who in turn reads them out. Whether anything is ever done about them is a matter of conjecture because that is where the process ends.

“Not everyone will want to go through a political party to raise issues,” she says. “And they do need to know that if they get sufficient support the matter will at least be considered.”

After she left the civil service she founded the Make it Happen campaign to set about changing this. She received funding from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation and Henry Smith Charity but has carried out all the work in her spare time.

When she started to talk to politicians and civil servants she found that there was a lot of enthusiasm for the project. She was subsequently invited to submit a paper to the Assembly’s Committee on Procedures which then produced its own report - and from September e-petitions can be posted on the Assembly’s website.

Mairaid said: “I initially anticipated building a website myself to demonstrate the need for such an electronic petitions system in Northern Ireland, but having spent some time working with both Assembly staff and members, I garnered sufficient support from the Committee on Procedures to ensure that they agreed to deliver this themselves anyway.”

Some of the details of how the process will work are still being fine tuned, and some of it may need to be revised. For example, based on the Westminster model Mairaid recommended that the threshold for consideration should be 3,000 signatures, yet the latest government position is that 100 will be enough. That may prove to be too few if e petitioning proves anything like as popular as it is for Westminster.  

Whatever the final number decided upon a petition that reaches the threshold will be considered by the Procedures Committee which will then decide what to do with it.

But is there a danger that increasing public participation in government could lead to policies being adopted on the basis of populism rather than a clear understanding of the issues involved?

Not really according to Mairaid. “My view on that is that the more people who become involved, the better the quality of the debate will be.”

She said that she wanted to encourage as many voluntary sector organisations as possible to use the process as part of their attempts to influence policy.

Doubtless the system will also be used by mischief-makers and pranksters, but is there any real harm in that?

Mairaid is holding her workshop at the Life Centre in Belfast on 16. Further details on the Xchange Summer School can be accessed here

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