Naomi Long proposes forum to tackle online abuse of politicians

By Jayne McCormack
BBC News NI political correspondent

Image source, Peter Dazeley
Image caption,
During the assembly election campaign in May several female candidates were subject to abuse

Justice Minister Naomi Long has suggested a forum with other parties should be held to discuss how to tackle online abuse of politicians.

She has written to them sharing her "growing concern", citing intimidation during May's election campaign.

The letter, seen by BBC News NI, suggests assembly members should meet to discuss how to deal with "such aggressive behaviour".

She highlighted harassment of female politicians as a specific problem.

During the election campaign several female candidates were subject to intimidation and abuse.

In one incident, People Before Profit's Hannah Kenny was verbally abused and physically threatened while canvassing in east Belfast.

Other female (members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) described how they had been subjected to online harassment on social media.

Mrs Long, who is also the Alliance leader, has written to all parties asking them to nominate two members of their party who have been affected or can speak on behalf of those who have experienced such abuse.

Image source, Pacemaker
Image caption,
Naomi Long asked parties to respond to her by Tuesday to confirm they were interested in contributing

"It is particularly concerning that at a time when we are trying to encourage more women to stand for public office, as well as seeking to address violence against women and girls, such incidents are so prevalent," the letter stated.

"It is incumbent upon us all to stand united and send a clear message that this type of abuse, both online and in person, is unacceptable."

The minister said legislation to tackle online abuse was not devolved, and that she hoped by reaching out to other parties they could relay information and experiences to the Home Office in London, which is designing the Online Safety Bill progressing through Parliament.

Mrs Long asked parties to respond to her by Tuesday to confirm they were interested in contributing.

Her letter added: "I hope you agree that it is important to facilitate an appropriate forum for a candid discussion and generate ideas about what more can be done to tackle this pervasive issue."

DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) assembly member Diane Dodds, who has been the subject of online abuse in the past, said ending the practice of fake social media accounts was the key to policing the issue.

"Until the anonymity of social media is dealt with, the Online Harms Bill and harassment legislation will be dealing with the output of the problem rather than the root of the problem," she added.