Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 25 November 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Northern Ireland's MPs stuck in past as Naomi Long leads Twitter poll

Naomi Long pictured at the Stormont Hotel after meeting with Dr Richard Haass
Naomi Long pictured at the Stormont Hotel after meeting with Dr Richard Haass

Will 2014 be the year when all MPs embrace Twitter? Last year, many interesting political stories broke on the social media website.

The prime minister even used Twitter to announce the start of his ministerial reshuffle in September. Other MPs found out about the pitfalls of an ill-thought-out tweet in 2013.

David Lammy, a Labour MP with aspirations to be mayor of London, may have done his campaign some harm back in March when he complained about the BBC's "crass and unnecessary" references to black and white smoke during the Papal conclave. He thought the corporation was being racist, but eventually apologised.

Eight of the 13 Northern Ireland MPs who take their seats are on Twitter, along with four out of the five Sinn Fein MPs. None of them has had a Twitter moment quite as bad as Lammy's, although some are more engaged with the medium than others.

There was a time in Northern Ireland politics when only the Rev Ian Paisley could truly claim to have "followers", but Twitter has changed that.

Naomi Long (below) is the most popular Northern Ireland MP on the site, with more than 6,600 followers. Michelle Gildernew, Conor Murphy and Paul Maskey all have more than 6,000 followers and Nigel Dodds and Jeffrey Donaldson each has just under 5,000.

Margaret Ritchie is the most prolific tweeter, having sent nearly 1,200 messages since she joined Twitter.

She has close to 2,800 followers. At the bottom of the table, Jim Shannon has around 400 followers and William McCrea (who describes himself as a "Free Presbyterian minister and platinum-selling Gospel singer – albums available on iTunes") has just 238.

Then again, McCrea hasn't said anything on Twitter since February. Shannon has been silent since election day 2010.

He should take some lessons from his party's leader at Westminster. Nigel Dodds knows how to use Twitter. His feed has lots of pictures of him meeting people, shares his opinions unfiltered and updates his followers on constituency matters.

These are just some of the advantages Twitter offers politicians – and they are taking advantage of it. Close to two-thirds of MPs have a Twitter account.

Barack Obama has 40 million followers, many of them not in the US, while at Westminster David Cameron has 553,000, Ed Miliband has 279,000 and Nick Clegg has 144,000. Even Nigel Farage is just short of 100,000.

Perhaps 2014 will be the year when Lady Hermon, Gregory Campbell, David Simpson, Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley Jr will sign up and start tweeting.

An important Twitter lesson for MPs is that, if you don't set up an account in your name, someone else will. There are already two parody accounts in the name of Sammy Wilson, one of which has 7,400 followers – more than any real Northern Ireland MP.

Twitter users should not just follow politicians. Dr Richard Haass's recent tweets provided a valuable insight into the talks.

And, of course, many of your favourite columnists from the Belfast Telegraph are on Twitter, too. At times, they can be even more informative than politicians.

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