Northern Ireland and the disappearing voters

11 Jan

Northern Ireland faces elections to its power-sharing Assembly. The election was necessitated by the continuing lack of trust between the two main parties – Sinn Fein (mainly Catholic and pro-united Ireland) and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) (mainly Protestant and pro-United Kingdom). Quite simply, the two parties cannot stand each other. The terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement means that despite their enmity they are trapped in a perpetual marriage of convenience.

The marriage of convenience became too inconvenient for one of the parties (Sinn Fein) who walked away. They (rightly) accused their partners in government (the DUP) of being too arrogant in their handling of a case of mismanagement of large sums of public money and in their general attitude towards government and governance. But the wider issue is one of trust: trust that the main parties have in each other (near zero) and trust that the public have in these parties (declining).

There is an interesting (and not widely discussed) phenomenon in Northern Ireland: people are losing interest in politics. Northern Ireland was once known for having the highest turnout levels in UK elections. Turnout levels that would have made Saddam Hussein proud were once recorded as the sectarian-nationalist political parties stirred up their support bases. The Fermanagh South Tyrone constituency once recorded a 94 per cent turnout – an instance that presumably had a number near corpses shuffling into the polling booth. But something interesting has been happening – and it is in keeping with other post-peace societies: electoral turnout has been falling. People see no link between voting and change in their material situation.

In 1998, the elections to the new Northern Ireland Assembly experienced a 69.8 per cent turnout. This suggested mobilised communities who took seriously electoral politics (even if they did vote for sectarian-nationalist parties). But fast forward to the last Assembly election (in 2016) and turnout was 54.9 per cent. With fresh elections on the horizon it seems unlikely that turnout will increase markedly. Quite simply, people are disillusioned with electoral politics as they stand.

The terms of the Good Friday Agreement mean that the four main political parties dominate in a permanent oligarchy. In effect, Sinn Fein and the DUP dominate. The other two parties in the power-sharing Executive (the Ulster Unionist Party and the Social Democratic and Labour Party) lack the support and leadership to mount much of an opposition.

What will happen if the new elections go ahead? Even with reduced turnout and therefore declining legitimacy for the democratic process, Sinn Fein and the DUP will continue to be the largest parties and go back into a power-sharing Assembly and Executive. Despite the falling turnout and declining legitimacy, the media and the British and Irish governments will continue to take seriously political parties that have systematically turned people off politics. The system seems broken if a declining pool of voters reinforce the position of two parties who have drained the pool.

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