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Technology casts a tangled web – but there’s no substitute for shoe leather!

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Date Published: 08-May-2013

There was a short space of time during the Democratic Party primaries for the US Presidential election in 2004 that technology had finally come into its own. Howard Dean was a medical doctor and a politician, a relatively obscure one in the US context, governor of the small liberal north-eastern state of Vermont. And in 2003, he made an explosive speech in California becoming the first high-ranking Democrat to openly oppose the invasion of Iraq.

"What I want to know is what in the world so many Democrats are doing supporting the President’s unilateral intervention in Iraq?" was the rhetorical question he asked that caught him such attention.

His campaign to become his party’s candidate for the Presidency grew quickly on the back of that speech. He was championed by younger and more radical democrats, students and those leaning to the left.

When Dean started out he was perhaps tenth or eleventh favourite to win the nomination. His cause was helped by a lot of media coverage which identified him as the figurehead for the anti-war movement in the party.

What really catapulted his campaign, though, was another development entirely. His campaign team used the internet in a way that no other candidate had used it before. Specifically they used a site called meetup.com to recruit supporters and raise funds.

As anybody who has ever followed American politics knows, elections there are a costly business.

Correction – expensive to the point of mind-bogglingly gargantuan proportions; multimillionaires only need apply.

But Dean’s team used the internet as a tool for getting anti-war activists to raise funds for campaign. They raised millions. Within a matter of months, he had gone from back-marker to front-runner.

Of course, by the time primary season opened, he was beginning to lose some traction as his opponents began to ask searching questions about his suitability and winability. He lost all momentum when he disconcertingly gave an over-the-top speech after finishing third in the Iowa caucus, finishing off with an elongated ‘yeah’ that became known as the ‘Dean Scream’. His opponents made great play of it. Clearly he had lost the plot. Sadly for him, he had also lost the election.

A lot of the coverage of Dean in 2003 wasn’t so much about him or his issues but about the nature of his campaign. The web had arrived, we were told. This was a game-changer, which would forever change the way in which elections were run… and won.

Well, not quite. Sure, what worked for Dean worked for others later, mainly Barack Obama. But the notion that elections would be fought on the web in the future didn’t add up. What the internet was best for, was raising funds and Obama raised millions of dollars that way.

But as a way of influencing the way people voted, technology was (and still is) found wanting.

The impact of the Dean campaign was not lost on this side of the Atlantic. By the time the 2007 general election came around, there were cartloads of articles – writen by people like me – dutifully intoning to everybody how the internet would win and lose elections.

Many politicians and putative politicians took it up, especially from the younger generation. Neither Facebook nor Twitter had taken off at that stage so what we got were lots of new home pages, blogs to beat the band, and some video stuff.

And its impact? Minimal, I’m afraid to say. Candidates spent hours and hours writing blogs documenting every move in their campaigns and highlighting all their issues. But just because there was a huge vogue for them in the media didn’t mean that anybody was reading them.

When you looked at the metrics, a miniscule amount of people were linking to the stuff. For all the effort that was expended, the return was minimal.

Later, a few innovative internet salespeople got politicians and political parties to set up gee-whiz home pages, complete with links to Twitter and Facebook as well as facilities for online donations.

But this wasn’t American and there was just not the critical mass (ie a population of a quarter of a billion) to raise decent money.

Of course, that never meant politicians could turn their back and have no online presence. They need to be on the web and it also helps to be on twitter or on facebook. But the purpose behind it has changed. It’s required as part of the overall service rather than as a tool for winning elections.

The web presence allows people to find out about clinics, what the politician is up to, what their views and causes are. It helps people form their opinions but is passive rather than active.

As I write this I’m looking at Paul Connaughton’s excellent home page. As a young professional politician, he’s made sure to include all his speeches, the link to his social media account, plus a ‘connect with Paul’ link giving information on his clinics, phone contacts, and a direct messaging facility. I just picked him at random, but it’s more or less the same for all his fellow TDs and Senators in Galway City and county.

So an online presence has become essential but not decisive. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the social media domain. Twitter has come to play a very important part in political dialogue.

Many TDs (especially the younger ones) have Twitter accounts.

The medium is an informal one and for a politician it can serve as a very useful political safety valve. Less formal than the Dáil and less onerous than having to nail your colours to the mast with an on-the-record quote to the media, Twitter has allowed politicians to do a bit of venting in a very direct way.

Because they are so short (140 characters), the message can often be open to interpretation. Which can suit the politician who is challenged by his superiors and can say: ‘Well, I can’t interpret the way in which other folk have interpreted my innocent little tweet!”.

For some, no such obfuscation was necessary.

When Dan Boyle was a senator and chairman of the Green Party when it was in coalition with Fianna Fail, he used Twitter to make critical comments of the major party, its Ministers and its policies. In other words, he used the medium to fulfil his role which he regarded as the moral conscience of his party.

More recently, Colm Keaveney showed off how attentive a student of classics he had been in school when he tweeted “Alea iacta est” (the die is cast) on the night before he voted against the Government on the Budget vote.

He followed it up the next day with “acta non verba” (deeds not words) before actually casting the vote that would cast himself into the wilderness.

But the classic new media (twitter) can only work effectively when the old media (newspapers, radio and television) pick up and run with it.

Keaveney has about 4,000 followers on Twitter which is a small enough audience. But a lot of those are media people. So the medium only really works when those media people broadcast it or write about it.

The classic example of that was Fine Gael during the 2011 election. The party took down its website and replaced it with a simple video of Enda Kenny having a ‘conversation’ inviting people to give their views.

The party promised to take them all on board on its rebuilt website. It was an election stunt dreamed up by a clever consultant.

It achieved what it set out to do; it attracted massive media attention and thousands of replies. Of course when the election was over, it was all dropped. Most of the twitter accounts created for candidates withered on the vine.

Technology is important – vital even – and it’s a game changer….but not in the way that most people imagined.

To win elections, shoe leather remains the most important asset… by far.

hmcgee@irishtimes.com

twitter: @harrymcgee

Galway in Days Gone By

The way we were – Protecting archives of our past

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A photo of Galway city centre from the county council's archives

People’s living conditions less than 100 years ago were frightening. We have come a long way. We talk about water charges today, but back then the local District Councils were erecting pumps for local communities and the lovely town of Mountbellew, according to Council minutes, had open sewers,” says Galway County Council archivist Patria McWalter.

Patria believes we “need to take pride in our history, and we should take the same pride in our historical records as we do in our built heritage”. When you see the wealth of material in her care, this belief makes sense.

She is in charge of caring for the rich collection of administrative records owned by Galway County Council and says “these records are as much part of our history as the Rock of Cashel is. They document our lives and our ancestors’ lives. And nobody can plan for the future unless you learn from the past, what worked and what didn’t”.

Archivists and librarians are often unfairly regarded as being dry, academic types, but that’s certainly not true of Patria. Her enthusiasm is infectious as she turns the pages of several minute books from Galway’s Rural District Councils, all of them at least 100 years old.

Part of her role involved cataloguing all the records of the Councils – Ballinasloe, Clifden, Galway, Gort, Loughrea, Mountbellew, Portumna and Tuam. These records mostly consisted of minutes of various meetings.

When she was cataloguing them she realised their worth to local historians and researchers, so she decided to compile a guide to their content. The result is For the Record: The Archives of Galway’s Rural District Councils, which will be a valuable asset to anybody with an interest in history.

Many representatives on these Councils were local personalities and several were arrested during the political upheaval of the era, she explains.

And, ushering in a new era in history, women were allowed to sit on these Rural District Councils – at the time they were not allowed to sit on County Councils.

All of this information is included in Patria’s introductory essay to the attractively produced A4 size guide, which gives a glimpse into how these Rural Councils operated and the way political thinking changed in Ireland during a short 26-year period. In the early 1900s, these Councils supported Home Rule, but by 1920, they were calling for full independence and refusing to recognise the British administration.

“I love the tone,” says Patria of the minutes from meetings. “The language was very emotive.”

That was certainly true of the Gort Rural District Council. At a meeting in 1907, following riots in Dublin at the premiere of JM Synge’s play, The Playboy of the Western World the councillors’ response was vehement. They recorded their decision to “protest most emphatically against the libellous comedy, The Playboy of the Western World, that was belched forth during the past week in the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, under the fostering care of Lady Gregory and Mr Yeats. We congratulate the good people of Dublin in howling down the gross buffoonery and immoral suggestions that are scattered throughout this scandalous performance.

 

For more from the archives see this week’s Tribunes here

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Archive News

Real Galway flavour to intermediate club hurling battle in Birr

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Date Published: 23-Jan-2013

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Athenry fail to take chances as they bow out of Junior Cup

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Date Published: 29-Jan-2013

Athenry FC 1

Kilbarrack United 2

(After extra time)

For the second year in succession Athenry were done in extra time in the FAI Junior Cup as last season’s beaten finalist’s came from behind to snatch an excellent game in Moanbawn on Sunday afternoon.

On a heavy pitch that was only playable following extensive groundwork by club officials all morning, the home side were by far the better side in the opening half, but failed to take advantage of a number of opportunities that came their way.

An Alan O’Donovan penalty gave them a merited advantage just after the restart, but thereafter were on the back foot as Kilbarrack took over, but for all their pressing, the home rearguard were dealing comfortably with their forays.

However they were struck a body blow just six minutes from time, as big striker Keith Kirwan was left all alone at the far post to head the equaliser and from that point on the Dubliners were the better side.

They started off the extra time in the ascendancy and enjoying all the momentum before striking for a good winning goal on 104 minutes. A strong bench allowed them to make some necessary changes and it was not a facility that was available to Athenry manager Gabriel Glavin.

With Gary Forde and Gary Delaney out through suspension following their sending off against OLBC in the previous round, and Seamie Crowe injured, it left their bench rather threadbare with just a number of young squad players available.

Playing with the aid of the slight incline and any wind advantage going, the home side had a Connor Cannon effort on target in the opening minute, while John Meleady was just over with a flick at the other end.

Meleady then tested Andrew Walsh who saved comfortably, before the goalkeeper pulled off a brilliant double save on 14 minutes.

Firstly he went full length to push away a Meleady shot and was then back on his feet to parry David Jackson’s close-range rebound.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Sentinel.

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