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The following article was published in today’s Belfast Telegraph print edition…
In the 2010 General Election just over half of our electorate here in Northern Ireland (57.6%) bothered to vote. This was the lowest turnout for all of the UK regions and the lowest turnout for a Westminster election since the records for such things began back in 1945. One could argue that part of the reason for this low turnout was the restoration of devolution. Voters here, some might argue, are less likely to vote in Westminster elections because the Assembly is responsible for more “bread and butter” issues – to lapse into the jargon of the typical MLA. However, that’s not the case either…because in the Assembly elections turnout was even worse. Turnout, in some constituencies, fell to well under 50% – in constituencies such as North Down and East Antrim.
Since the elections nothing has been done to address this problem. Our politicians are behaving like nothing is wrong – that we still have a proper political discourse and that party politics can go as before. But they can’t. In fact there is a vast yawning gulf between party politics and the body politic.
Northern Ireland’s system of participative democracy has been pulled asunder because of a series of perfect storm forces that have been acting upon it. One force is the underlying desire for a proper secular basis to our politics – outside the seriously tedious debates about “culture” or “identity”. Another force is the disgust at the grubby grabathon that modern politics has become – with apparatchik political advisors, dodgy deals and shady goings-on. But the most profound force, resulting in the disengagement of the electorate, is the sheer creepiness of the political class – one that seems incapable of understanding how bizarre local party politics seems to most of us.
The remoteness of the political class becomes more obvious when one looks at how each of the parties behaves. The DUP chose to entirely ignore the fact that the public perception of it – and its leading dramatis personae – careered to rock bottom because of the patronising tone it adopted in the midst of the various Robinson debacles. Rather than learning any lessons from the general election result – that saw its party leader lose his Westminster seat to Alliance – the party merely re-grouped and re-secured its East Belfast seat at the Assembly elections (although turnout in Belfast East slumped from 60% in 2007 to 53.6% in 2011). In short – the DUP appears to have no interest in re-securing the disengaged and disenfranchised. It merely wants to maximise its vote in the runt of the electorate that bothers to turn out.
Similarly Sinn Fein has chosen to ignore the public disgust at the appointment of Mary McCardle as a special advisor to the “Culture” Minister. The UUP has chosen to ignore the fact that its public perception – since its appointment of Tom Elliott as Leader – is that it has no real relevance (if it ever had) to any voters East of the Bann. The SDLP, witters on constantly about regional politics, Ireland this and that, a pan-Irish discourse etc., thereby totally losing us all in its esoteric, navel-gazing rants.
The result of all of this is the incredible, shrinking, Northern Ireland electorate.
In short, it appears that the political system that created vast turnouts in the past is no longer fit for purpose for a present, and future, that requires a different type of politics. Big turnouts of the past were the stuff of sectarian headcounts. Indeed, even in the most recent assembly elections the largest turnouts were in rural constituencies where the tribal drums could be beaten the loudest. Fermanagh & South Tyrone had a turnout of around 69% versus around 46% in leafy, middle class North Down.
Northern Ireland, it would appear, needs a version of the Arab Spring to clear out what has come before. The entire basis of our party politics is completely wrong for a series of political debates that affects us all. Like hapless Apprentice contestants, the local political parties set out their stalls in the wrong locations with the wrong merchandise – and hardly anyone bothers to turn up or buy.