During the negotiations leading up to the Good Friday Agreement, an American journalist asked me what some local political representatives meant when they used the phrase "my people". I knew exactly what he meant. It's a phrase that used to be used by people who either had a very small mandate, or no mandate at all.
But in using it, they believed they were adding some sort of legitimacy to their argument. In other words, they were setting themselves up as the spokesperson for someone or other, even if it was never entirely clear whom they represented.
Once the Assembly was established, and it became easier to work out who did and didn't have a mandate, "my people" was dropped in favour of "my community".
The beauty of this, of course, is that some of the self-appointed spokespersons don't even go through the pretence of having a mandate. Indeed, they describe the community they claim to represent as "left behind", "unrepresented", "unheard" or just "abandoned by the peace process". Who needs a mandate when you can trot out that line?
Why bother to seek a mandate, in fact, when the media and the mainstream political parties seem happy enough to buy into your mantra and provide platforms for you?
The Orange Order, for example, doesn't have an electoral mandate. It doesn't put up candidates to champion its position on flags, parades or culture. Yet in 2010, it was able to persuade the UUP not to support the justice deal being negotiated at Hillsborough. It also played an instrumental part in Peter Robinson's decision to withdraw support for the Maze project. And during the Haass process, the DUP chose senior Orangeman Mervyn Gibson – unelected and not even a party member – to be one of their negotiators.
Dissident republicans don't have a mandate for what they do. Yet it is clear from what happened at Castlederg over the summer and from the increasingly strident and belligerent language of Sinn Fein's key figures that Sinn Fein is looking over its shoulder at the dissidents. It is looking over its shoulder and adjusting its language and strategy accordingly. It is deliberately widening the gap between itself and mainstream unionism and doing so by the old tactic of claiming mainstream unionism is running scared of unionist/loyalist extremists. In an interview with Mark Carruthers, Martin McGuinness accused the PUP, UVF and Orange Order of being one and the same.
The reality, or so it seems to me, is that the mainstream political parties (the DUP and Sinn Fein in particular) seem keener to listen to the unelected and non-mandated than to listen to each other. In fairness, it also seems to me that the TUV and UUP are sometimes being steered by unelected spokespersons within some of the victims' groups. Yet in listening to the unelected rather than to each other, and in being prepared to take direction from them, they are making it extremely difficult for themselves to co-operate in what should be the everyday priorities of government.
Northern Ireland has enormous problems in the areas of education, health, welfare, housing, social integration, sharing, employment and investment. But you wouldn't know.
And you wouldn't know because the parties seem keener to ignore or sideline that sort of debate in favour of hours of pointless name-calling and raking over the coals. Almost every attempt to move the debate towards the socio-economic is dragged back to an us-and-them scrap.
There have been two very serious consequences. Increasing numbers of groups and organisations, who should be able to view the Assembly as their first port of call for problem-solving, have simply disconnected and disengaged; and I'm no longer surprised by people telling me that they would prefer direct rule.
And huge numbers of people – from all backgrounds and walks of life – have stopped voting. They couldn't be bothered going to a polling booth because they believe that the Assembly (and I would bet we'll see it happen with the new councils) makes no difference to their lives.
A much more serious consequence has been the media rise of people like Jamie Bryson, Willy Frazer and Winston Irvine. They have become 'players' because the mainstream parties have allowed them to become players (and Sinn Fein/SDLP have helped by highlighting them).
Let's be blunt, it's very hard to fill the pages or airwaves with stories about Executive policy and Assembly decisions if there don't appear to be any. It's very difficult to have a proper debate when all you have is a dysfunctional Executive, squabbling ministers and no opposition. It's very hard to avoid people like Bryson when there is a very clear impression that they are being given an input.
The unelected and non-mandated have a right to be heard: trade unions and business organisations fall into that category too. But they cannot be allowed to set the agenda. They cannot be allowed to insist that it's their way or the highway. They need to be challenged by the media and they need to be faced down by the political parties. And we need to establish parameters by which we can judge the nature and size of the 'community' they claim to represent. They cannot be treated as though they have a significant mandate. They cannot be given parity of coverage.
Their voice needs to be heard, but it mustn't be allowed to drown out either the mainstream or the mostly silent majority.
If they want a real say then get a proper mandate and let's know who they really speak for. Now is also the time for the non-voters to do something, because in not voting they are allowing parties to claim to speak on their behalf. Nobody speaks for everybody. We need new voices and new parties – with demonstrable mandates.