Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

If you don't vote there could be trouble on streets

Almost one in three potential Northern Irish voters have not bothered to date to register.
Almost one in three potential Northern Irish voters have not bothered to date to register.

Will you vote in the next election in Northern Ireland? If not why not?

These questions are increasingly relevant because barely half the electorate is likely to vote judging by the apathy shown recently towards the ballot-box and the weak response this autumn to the registration process.

As I completed my electoral registration form, I wondered how many people simply set the correspondence to one side, as I did for a couple of weeks, or didn't bother to return it. Now we know.

The statistics on who hasn't returned the form are a worrying reflection on the public's interest in the democratic process.

Almost one in three potential voters have not bothered to date to register. Little wonder that the former Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott put out a statement expressing a level of concern which I suspect is felt across all parties but most of all in unionist political circles.

We know already that the trend in voting is sharply downwards. The turn-out at the last Stormont election – 57% – was the lowest yet for the new devolved Assembly. The impact of apathy is more apparent within unionism where more than 100,000 votes may have gone begging.

Is public failure to respond to the electoral office in its autumn canvas another example?

Mr Elliott points to close on 400,000 missing from the register across Northern Ireland.

The Electoral Office says 1.4m are potential eligible voters of which 1m have registered to date and the rest have until November 18 to do so.

In the city of Belfast alone, 114,000 have still to register for voting purposes. In south Belfast only 50,000 out of 90,000, have returned their forms. In west Belfast only 44,000 out of 70,000 have registered.

These figures are all the more concerning in a city which has faced so much political turmoil, street protests and disorder in the past year.

The figures imply that a lot of people don't care about the future of Belfast or Northern Ireland despite the fact that we are entering another crucial phase in the political and peace process.

The right to vote can't be dismissed lightly not least because democracy has been won so painfully at home and elsewhere at an enormous cost in human life.

We were reminded of that sacrifice on the Shankill Road and at Greysteel in the past fortnight and we will be reminded of it again next Sunday when people here and around the world pay their tributes to the millions who lost their lives in war.

The people of Northern Ireland know the cost of a democratic deficit where politicians are swept aside by the brutality of terrorist groups. That could hardly have been more vividly illustrated than in the tearful, heartrending memorials to the victims of violence at Greysteel and the Shankill.

Observers of Northern Ireland might expect that a lesson learnt so tragically would not be lost on today's generation and yet there is a level of political apathy which suggests otherwise.

A dangerous complacency exists which may be fuelled by the extent to which politicians in various parties, unionist and nationalist have failed to live up to expectations.

However, is that a reason not to vote? On the contrary it should be an incentive for people to take a keener interest if only to try and improve the political process.

When the loyalist flag protests broke out in nightly disorder a year ago, unionist leaders blamed political apathy within their community and urged protesters to exercise their voting rights rather than cause disruption and trouble on the city's streets.

The turn-out at next May's council elections count will reveal whether the call to vote has been heeded.

As of now, apathy appears to reign still. The inclination to protest is still there and the consequences for Christmas in Belfast remain to be seen.

It is hardly an exaggeration to suggest that the future of devolution, be it at Stormont or in the council chambers, is under threat from disillusion and disinterest within the electorate.

The challenge facing all the parties in the coming months is to prove to the people who have yet to return their electoral forms and the many who didn't vote in the past that politics remains the only way forward for Northern Ireland.

The message must surely be that street protest is no answer.

Denying one's democratic rights by not registering or not voting is no answer either.

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