Over three-quarters of local councillors in Northern Ireland (76%) have experienced abuse in their role, while a further 52% have said they have been intimidated by members of the public and ‘trolls’, new figures reveal.
A new survey by the Northern Ireland Local Government Association has revealed the levels and extent of abuse and intimidation of local councillors in Northern Ireland for the first time. All 462 councillors were surveyed with a response rate of over one fifth, showing the extent of the impact of this problem on elected representatives. Two-thirds of respondents (66%) said that they had been abused or intimidated on social media while 53% said it had occurred in person. Reported incidents ranged from damage to personal property, the erection of threatening posters, abusive graffiti, and death threats.
Concerningly, 65% of respondents also said their families and relatives had been affected by this abuse or intimidation, while 35% said they had been directly subjected to similar abuse for the actions of councillors. 82% of respondents also said they have invested in or taken new security measures to protect themselves. This includes the installation of CCTV cameras, reinforcing doors at home, avoiding constituent house calls alone, and enhancing home security systems.
The survey, the findings of which were revealed at the 2023 Local Government Conference in Omagh, has a number of recommendations including the creation of a central hub to signpost councillors to advice and support services as well as the establishment of a cross-party forum for councillors and MLAs to consider how legislation can be developed and strengthened in Northern Ireland to improve the safety of all elected representatives.
The 2023 Local Government Conference took place today in the Silverbirch Hotel, Omagh. Led by NILGA and Solace NI, and sponsored by the Small Business Research Initiative, this year’s conference focused on responding to future challenges and securing the sustainability of the local government sector in Northern Ireland.
Speaking after the publication of the report, NILGA President, Martin Kearney said:
“The findings of our survey are deeply concerning and point to a worrying normalisation of the abuse of elected representatives in Northern Ireland. While disagreement and debate are healthy in any functioning democracy, it’s important that this is legitimate and proper and does not become abusive, aggressive, or violent.
“Abuse and intimidation of elected representatives is never justified, regardless of their decisions, viewpoints, or political stances. This survey lays bare the levels and extent to which councillors in Northern Ireland are subjected to unfair and unwarranted abuse on a daily basis. In the 21st Century, social media is a vital form of communication between elected representatives and local constituents. However, more and more councillors are being put off engaging on social media due to the unacceptable and unsafe levels of abuse they are being subjected to.
“It is clear that there needs to be tougher legislation and punishments to discourage online trolls and abusers, who feel emboldened by anonymity and being behind a screen, from harassing elected councillors. Responses to this survey are clear that much more work needs to be done between councils, statutory agencies, and other levels of government to ensure that councillors and other elected representatives are sufficiently protected while carrying out their roles and to ensure that potential candidates are not put off representing their local areas.
“NILGA will be working with the PSNI, the Department of Justice, our MLAs, local wellbeing providers and experts, and colleagues across the local government sector to create a safer environment for all councillors and to deter abusers from harassing and intimidating elected representatives.”
Following the Survey of the Councillors across NI, this report was issued.