Belfast Telegraph

Concern over apathy levels as a third of Northern Ireland's voters fail to sign electoral register

by CHRIS KILPATRICK

The failure of almost one in three potential voters in Northern Ireland to register has been described as deeply concerning by politicians from across the divide.

To date, 1,006,441 have been added to the electoral register – almost 400,000 short of the potential eligible electorate.

And more than 114,000 people are currently missing from the register in Belfast alone.

The highest responding constituency so far is Strangford with a 76.30% response rate, while the lowest is South Belfast with 62.58%.

The Northern Ireland average is currently just 71.59%. East Belfast, one of the hubs of political discontent throughout the past year due to the Union flag row, has an above average return of 72.62%, but so far voter numbers are significantly down on 2011 figures.

More than 1,300 Electoral Office staff recently delivered registration forms to every home to ensure the electoral register is up to date in time for next year's polls for the European Parliament and local councils. While there is still time for potential voters to sign up, a number of significant trends are emerging.

The European and local elections will be followed by the next Westminster battle in 2015, and the election for the new Assembly in 2016.

East Belfast DUP councillor and former Lord Mayor Gavin Robinson said his party was confident the unionist electorate would take their frustrations over flags and parading to the ballot boxes.

"The reality is that if there had been more unionist councillors in City Hall last Christmas the Union flag would never have been lowered," he said.

"The next achievement will be when those who are registered actually use their vote."

Speculation of a return of regular flag protests in the run-up to Christmas has been met with grave concern among city centre traders. A large loyalist protest has been planned for the city on November 30, one of the busiest shopping days of the year.

Unionist political representatives across Belfast have appealed to flag protesters to leave street demonstrations behind and sign onto the electoral register.

They say they should use their energies at election time to try to change the make-up of Belfast City Council, whose nationalist majority helped push through the decision to fly the Union flag only on designated days.

"Those who haven't registered should do so now," said Belfast PUP councillor John Kyle. "You cannot contribute to that democratic process unless you are registered to vote. If people feel their views are not being taken into consideration the way to deal with that is through voting into power those who will represent your views."

In West Belfast, just 62.68% have registered, prompting Sinn Fein to take action.

"Your vote can make a difference and people should make sure that they are on the register and have the opportunity to make their mark come the next election," said Sinn Fein MP Paul Maskey. "Sinn Fein have been rapping doors encouraging people to fill in the forms they received."

Just 68.01% of those eligible have registered in Foyle to date, 52,130 from a possible 76,740.

SDLP MLA for Foyle, Pat Ramsey, admitted the statistics were alarming.

"It is disappointing that more people have not registered to vote at this point with local government and European elections approaching," he said.

"It is vitally important that the electorate exercise their democratic right to vote."

Former Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott last week said he was "extremely concerned" by the latest figures.

And Alliance East Belfast MLA Judith Cochrane said it was "vitally important" everybody is on the electoral register.

The deadline to register is November 18.

Chief electoral officer Graham Shields (left) urged those yet to register to do so "without delay".

Those who return their completed forms will appear on the new electoral register, which will be published in early December.

BACKGROUND

The chief electoral officer is responsible for compiling and maintaining the electoral register. There are two versions of the register – the full version and the edited version. Individuals details will appear on the full version, but you can choose to exclude your details from the edited register by ticking the 'opt out' box on the form. The full register is used for elections, preventing and detecting crime, and checking applications for credit.

An above average response, but unionists pushing message hard

Number registered to 2013 canvass so far: 53,109

Potential eligible electorate as per census 2011: 74,042

Proportion of potential eligible electorate registered: 72.62%

Much of the trouble around flag protests took place in East Belfast, with the area's MP, Alliance's Naomi Long, subject to a death threat.

To date, those who have registered in the east of the city is above the Northern Ireland average at 72.62%.

While the number of those registered is above average, the figure is so far still significantly down on 2011.

But unionist politicians in the area say they are confident that figure will increase prior to the November 18 deadline for registrations.

They have been using the frustrations around the Union flag row – as well as issues surrounding parading – as driving forces to push people towards the polls.

DUP councillor and former Lord Mayor of Belfast Gavin Robinson said encouraging people to sign up "reflects our work through the Unionist Forum and that of others in convincing residents that the way to affect real change in society is through the ballot box".

"The reality is that if there had been more unionist councillors in City Hall last Christmas the Union flag would never have been lowered," he said.

Alarm bells for SF in its heartland

Number registered to 2013 canvass so far: 44,496

Potential eligible electorate as per census 2011: 70,755

Proportion of potential eligible electorate registered so far: 62.68%

The Member of Parliament since a 2011 by-election is Paul Maskey of Sinn Fein, who succeeded Gerry Adams, the party's president.

Mr Adams previously held the seat from 1983 to 1992, when he lost it to Joe Hendron of the SDLP, but regained it in 1997. West Belfast had an above average turnout for the 2011 Assembly elections. More than 35,000 votes were polled, 57.9% of those eligible.

This compared to the Northern Ireland average of 55.71%

The significant drop in voter registration has caused alarm.

Mr Maskey yesterday said it was essential for those who haven't registered to take action.

"Your vote can make a difference and people should make sure that they are on the register and have the opportunity to make their mark come the next election," he said.

"Sinn Fein have been rapping doors encouraging people to fill in the forms they received and post them back to the electoral office.

"Some people thought because the publicised deadline is past that there was no point sending forms back.

"However, that is not the case, and they should still return the form."

Indifference a worry, admits SDLP

Number registered to 2013 canvass so far: 52,130

Potential eligible electorate as per census 2011: 76,740

Proportion of potential eligible electorate registered: 68.01%

THE constituency is overwhelmingly nationalist and in many elections has often had the strongest vote for the SDLP in the whole of Northern Ireland. Unionists of various parties routinely poll around 20%–25% in elections.

There had been much speculation that with the gradual retirement of John Hume from politics, the SDLP vote might collapse.

In the 2003 Northern Ireland Assembly election the SDLP lost 11.5% of the vote and was only narrowly ahead of Sinn Fein. Many questioned whether Mark Durkan, Hume's successor as leader, could hold onto the seat.

However, in the 2005 General Election he did so.

The decline in the unionist vote suggests that some unionists tactically voted for Durkan. He then retained the seat in 2010. This seat also gave the Alliance Party its worst share of the vote in Northern Ireland, polling just 0.6% of the ballots.

SDLP MLA for Foyle Pat Ramsey admitted the latest statistics were concerning.

"These early figures are a useful indication of where efforts need to be concentrated now," he said.

"It is vitally important that the electorate exercise their democratic right to vote and ensure politicians are working for them."

Stormont shenanigans a turn-off

Number registered to 2013 canvass so far: 52,043

Potential eligible electorate as per census: 92, 532

Proportion of potential eligible electorate registered: 62.58%

UUP councillor Bob Stoker said he believed a transient population and voter apathy were to blame for the poor response to date in South Belfast.

He said: "There is a large transient population along the Lisburn Road, in the Holylands area, in Stranmillis. A lot of people are registering at home, and not where they live in Belfast. Many are only in South Belfast for a year or two."

He laid blame for voter apathy at the feet of Stormont MLAs.

"They don't tackle everyday issues like education or healthcare," he added.

"By not voting you're allowing people to basically govern by default."

Sinn Fein MLA Alex Maskey said the Electoral Office had clear responsibilities in targeting areas where it saw a reduction in registrations.

"South Belfast is one of the constituencies that has some of the most deprived and affluent areas."

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