Can the same old faces really breathe life into local politics?
A day is proving a long time in politics in 2009. We are starting to see the full repercussions of the Westminster expenses scandal.
Wholesale changes are afoot across Britain and in Northern Ireland. Many of the old familiar faces will not be around much longer for one reason or another.
Some simply have not the stomach to face an electorate which would surely savage them.
The ones who do, and whose expenses have come to light in the Daily Telegraph expose, may find the majorities they enjoyed at the last election in 2005, register no longer on the great swingometer of fortune.
We know now the extent of the purge in Northern Ireland. If the principal parties keep to their stated promises of the past week, nearly all our existing 18 MPs should be replaced by 2010 when the next General Election is expected. If they wish to keep their seat at Westminster, then the days of moonlighting at Stormont are over and new faces must emerge there also.
This is a healthy step in the political future of Northern Ireland. We have too many modern-day fiefdoms dominated by unionists, nationalists and republicans, where election results have become foregone conclusions and the same people have dominated for decades.
Now is the moment for a new generation of public representative to emerge from all these groupings. For as long as the names of Paisley, Robinson, Adams or McGuinness appeared on a ballot paper, no one in their parties, never mind the opposition got a look-in. We need MPs who can command attention at Westminster on more than the narrow ground of Ulster. That is a very different breed of political animal from what is required at Stormont. If unionists care as much about the Union, as they say they do, then the next generation of their MPs at Westminster have a task on their hands. They must convince the British people and parliament that this is not a place apart.
Northern Ireland cannot expect to be subsidised for ever as heavily as it is from the British Exchequer. The battles ahead to reduce the extraordinary level of public spending here promise to be just as crucial to this province’s future as were the sectarian confrontations of the past. At Westminster, we need representatives who can articulate the continued needs of Northern Ireland, not simply flit in and out of London in between trips to Stormont. The future starts with the European elections on Thursday, the first test of the public’s mood after the expenses scandal.
The most likely protest is abstention. Many may stay at home rather than offer support to parties which they believe have let them down by their failure to reform and willingness to support for so long the system of claiming expenses.
Aside from the threat of an all-time low poll, the future of Gordon Brown — and in the Republic, Brian Cowen must also be at stake. They and their respective parties, Labour and Fianna Fail, face such an almighty pummelling at the polls that the news at the end of this week may be dominated by their bleak prospects of survival in the months ahead.
Here in Northern Ireland, the Euro poll will answer more parochial questions. The three way battle between the Ulster Unionist, Jim Nicholson, the DUP’s Diane Dodds and the Traditional Unionist Voice’s Jim Allister is intriguing and hard to call. What will be the impact on Nicholson from the recent squabbling within the Ulster Unionist camp over his party’s new Conservative link? And if he were to lose his seat where would that leave the future of the Tory pact, and maybe also Sir Reg Empey as the leader who has nailed his colours so strongly to a true blue David Cameron mast?
What of Diane Dodds? Could the adverse publicity over politicians making a family business out of Westminster and Stormont affect her vote? Could Nicholson, better-known in rural Ulster, or Dodds, from Belfast, find difficulty commanding provincewide support? And what of Jim Allister’s somewhat abrasive style? Is he just another Robert McCartney who failed to make an electoral impact for all his prominence?
As for Sinn Fein and the SDLP, Thursday is a test of whether the former’s support has peaked in the face of dissident republicanism and whether moderate nationalism can revive some of its strength from the John Hume days. With regard to the Alliance party, as ever it looks squeezed between the battles within unionists, nationalists and republicans.
The electorate in Britain, if not in Northern Ireland, is expected to demonstrate its disgust with politics by staying away in droves from the polls. In doing so, the abstentionists will only deny their democratic right.
Staying at home on election day does nothing for the country other than to encourage an anarchic, rudderless future in which we are all losers.
Our faith in the political system is shaken but it is still the bed-rock of organised life.
Now is the moment to rebuild politics and to ensure a full face-lift rather than some superficial makeover.
Now is not a time to abstain. The wind of change must blow through all the parties and ensure that we have better public representation in the future.