Belfast Telegraph

Friday 31 October 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Who's going to think outside the box and get us voting?

The traditional motivation for voters here – that the other side will gain positions of power – is gradually losing its force as peace settles in

European election nominations close today and, so far, the most interesting decisions of the election campaign are the DUP's justification for not putting up two candidates.

As Peter Robinson explained in March, "an additional unionist candidate in the race would have increased the chances, to a dangerous level, of a second non-unionist candidate being elected."

In every European election to date, the result thrown up has been two unionists and one nationalist MEP. The main change is that Sinn Fein replaced the SDLP in the green corner once John Hume (below), the SDLP's biggest vote-winner, retired in 2004. That year Bairbre de Brun of Sinn Fein won his former seat and the SDLP has been in slow decline ever since.

This year, the SDLP believes it has halted the rot and is fielding Alex Attwood, who hopes to slip through the gap if the unionist vote fractures.

Alliance, whose candidate, Anna Lo, said she favoured Irish unity in the long term, is hoping to motivate non-voters and attract transfers from all sections of the electorate.

So is NI21, the new moderate unionist party, whose candidate, Tina McKenzie, has erected some posters in Irish.

Smaller parties boast allies in Europe, where Diane Dodds, the DUP incumbent, sits as an Independent. If Ross Brown of the Greens is elected, he may well be part of the Euro parliament's largest single group.

If McKenzie gets in, it will be under the banner of the mighty European People's Party, which currently includes 12 out of Europe's 28 heads of state, including Enda Kenny in the Republic and Angela Merkel in Germany.

Jim Nicholson, the sitting UUP MEP, is standing as part of the UK Conservative group, as is Mark Brotherson, the official Tory candidate. Pollsters are predicting that Ukip will have the largest group of MEPs elected in the UK and Henry Reilly, the local representative, is hoping to ride the Eurosceptic tide.

The safest prediction is that the dwindling number of people who turn out to vote will continue to elect the same three parties.

Since unionism and nationalism are now so closely matched, there is always an outside chance of Nicholson being toppled on some trick of the transfers. Mr Attwood, Ms Lo and the TUV's Jim Allister , a former DUP MEP, all hope that they can benefit.

As Mr Robinson pointed out, there are a lot of unionist parties standing – at least six – compared to two nationalists. As the campaign progresses, he will be urging people not to vote for the smaller ones for fear of letting a nationalist or a cross-community party in.

In 2009, he warned that the Union could be undermined if the DUP did not top the poll. On that occasion, Ms Dodds, Mr Nicholson and Mr Allister all got more than 13%, with the result that Sinn Fein was elected first, but no great consequences followed.

That is how voters are normally motivated here – raising the fear that the other side will gain positions of power and authority. As peace settles in and the sense of security increases, such tactics still work – the DUP would abandon them at its peril – but they are gradually losing force. In 2009, most people didn't vote, something which undermines the credibility of an election.

So far, no party, new or old, has identified the killer issue which will appeal to enough non-voters to reinvigorate our democratic process.

It may not happen this year, but as time goes on the potential is obvious for a new approach that can break the mould and get people voting again.

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