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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 February, 2004, 20:01 GMT
Politicians monitor the 'bloggers'

Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

At a south Belfast internet cafe, a group of students are browsing the web.

Most are more interested in clicking on music or chat sites than anything political. But Sean tells me he does talk politics when he surfs the net.
Forums exchanging messages about NI politics are nothing new

"People from America tend to raise the topic of Northern Ireland. People from here find it boring - we have to live it - but I would answer questions when Americans ask me what it's like here".

Richard doesn't know much about political websites, but he has heard of blogging, short for keeping a log on the web.

"I would consider doing it", he says, "but I wouldn't use my own name."

Not all Belfast web users are so shy. Mick Fealty set up the Slugger O'Toole web site about 18 months ago.

Initially, he regarded it as a personal site to pursue his own research interests in Northern Ireland politics.

But soon the number of visitors was growing from 100 to 200. Now the site averages 2,000 hits a day.

Although Fealty lives in England, his Slugger site attracts Northern Ireland web users with pseudonyms like Belfast Gonzo, Fluffy and Ulster Decides.

People used to say to me when I started up the Portadown News, you better keep your head down, you're going to get into trouble
Newton Emerson
Portadown News

There are also regular contributors happy to use their own names, among them a number of elected politicians.

Newton Emerson, who edits the satirical web site, the Portadown News, sees this partial abandonment of anonymity as a breakthrough.

"People used to say to me when I started up the Portadown News, you better keep your head down, you're going to get into trouble," he says.

"But that hasn't been the case and I think people are beginning to realise that you can speak your mind in Northern Ireland 10 years after the ceasefires and not get a kicking."

'Particular interest groups'

Forums exchanging messages about Northern Ireland politics are nothing new.

With Irish America as an important driving force, Irish Republican Bulletin Boards have been a feature of the web for many years.

But in the past sites tended to cater to particular interest groups with republicans and loyalists talking mainly to their own kind.

However, Slugger pulls in people of all persuasions and none.

The rule is you have to play the ball, not the man
Mick Fealty
Slugger O'Toole

"I think that's the joy of it," says the Ulster Unionist activist and newspaper columnist Alex Kane.

"It includes people who are DUP, people who are republicans, people who are genuinely interested in politics as well as some who are quirky and certifiably barking. There's nothing I know of quite like it".

The presence of so many diverse political activists leads not only to interesting exchanges of views, but also to the airing of inside information.

Sinn Fein councillor Eoin O'Broin reads with interest the messages from SDLP and Alliance activists and finds himself surprised at times by the detail they provide into other party's internal disputes.

"These are interesting insights which are useful and valuable to read," he says, "especially for a politician like myself".

'Possible successor'

Slugger might still be mainly for the anoraks, but it can influence how the mainstream media handle stories.

Mick Fealty claims a number of scoops, including a recent eyewitness account of racist intimidation in south Belfast.

"That was picked up by the BBC, UTV and led to a front page story in the Guardian," he says.

On the day Ian Paisley announced his decision to stand down from the European parliament, DUP insiders were tipping Nigel Dodds as a possible successor.

Nigel Dodds had been tipped to stand for Europe
Nigel Dodds had been tipped to stand for Europe

However, within minutes a Slugger contributor pointed out that the latest rules would force the North Belfast MP to choose between Europe and his North Belfast constituency.

The DUP put its thinking cap back on and this week picked the barrister Jim Allister as its European candidate.

One problem facing anyone setting up a bulletin board is quality control, ensuring messages don't degenerate into personal abuse.

Newton Emerson gave up on the chat site he had linked to the Portadown News because he didn't have the time to moderate what he calls the "hardcore of lunatics" who spent all day "typing rubbish" on the web.

Mick Fealty operates a soccer style system of yellow cards and red cards intended to keep the debate above board.

"The rule is you have to play the ball, not the man," says Fealty, who has doled out red cards barring contributors from the site for a month at a time when they overstepped the mark.

Slugger doesn't have a particular party political agenda to push. If it did, its opinionated contributors would probably be quick to log off.

But in an environment where walk-outs are as common as walk-ins, it provides a virtual talks table at which everyone can communicate with a click of the mouse.

And surely, that's no bad thing.




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