Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 December 2014

A new generation of politicians must emerge to regain our trust

The Labour party and the various unionist parties of Northern Ireland were not the only losers in the European election.

Collectively, politicians have let down the people and brought shame on themselves. As a consequence we are all losers.

Democracy is reduced to a sham. Politics is a dirty word. Politicians are now the bottom of the heap.

The old soldiers standing proudly on the D Day beaches of Normandy at the weekend could be forgiven if they had felt their courage and sacrifice had been besmirched. Sixty-five years to the day, their Monarch was at the races at Epsom, her son could appear at their commemoration only fleetingly as a last-minute guest and their prime minister, hounded and hunted by even his erstwhile supporters, was there on borrowed time.

Might the veterans of D-Day have asked themselves — was this what we fought for? A nation rudderless. A parliament corrupted. A people with so little faith in the democratic process that they didn’t even bother to vote.

In the long history of the rise and fall of the British Empire, the events of the past month add another sadly significant chapter.

The sun may have long set on the actual Empire but now a very dark cloud has descended over Westminster. That which was an example to the world as to how democracy should work, is now an example to us all of how it shouldn’t.

This is surely a major turning point in politics in every corner of the UK, not least Northern Ireland. On reflection, politics has been losing public appeal over many years as evidenced from declining voting patterns in the past four decades. When we reach a point as we did in the European election, where only one in three exercised their right to vote in some parts of Northern Ireland, we must surely ask if democracy is dying?

Bairbre de Brun may congratulate herself on topping the poll in Northern Ireland but hers is only a Pyrrhic victory. The real winner — I would say big loser — is William John Seamus Patrick Apathy representing the 653,097 eligible voters who enjoyed the sunshine last Thursday and totally ignored Ms de Brun and the six other candidates.

Why? Well given that we are remembering D-Day, I would say a number of words beginning with “D” register with Mr and Mrs Apathy. Dismay at the profligate attitude of Westminster MPs. Disappointment with the performance of the Stormont Executive and Assembly to date. Disillusion with politics in general.

The people have used the European elections to vent their anger at what they see as an abuse of power. Ironically, as a friend suggested to me recently, the United Kingdom has never been so united. The unity of outrage displayed from John O’Groats to Land’s End from Co Fermanagh to East Anglia, in the form of ballot-box abstention, is a wake-up call and must be acted upon immediately by political parties everywhere, including here.

Whether Gordon Brown survives today or not is of little consequence compared to the need to re-establish trust and faith in those who represent us in London, Brussels and Belfast. People must know that their votes count for something. A whole new generation of politicians must emerge out of the current shambles and somehow they must develop an appeal to the 653,097 people here who couldn’t care less about voting last week.

Tomorrow’s MP or MLA needs to be articulate, media-savvy, an accomplished and instant communicator of his or her opinions.

Does your current MP or MLA fit that bill or is he or she more likely to evade answers to questions they don’t wish asked and complain that the media is stirring things unfairly?

The days when an MP handed out his tablets of party policy in an Orange Hall to an unquestioning faithful are going if not gone. People are not prepared to take politicians at face value any longer. We live in the instantaneous age of phone-ins, text messages and emails and the politicians who cannot cope with this new world of openness and transparency are being found out. The more arrogantly some of them have behaved, the more cynical people and the media have become.

Not surprisingly the vote in Northern Ireland is down because people are shocked at some of the facts about MPs feathering their nests with taxpayers’ money. I would suspect that the concentration of political power in so few hands here is also beginning to register with more people.

On the unionist side, what are potential voters to make of the confusing signals emanating from the main parties? What are they to make of an executive where ministers appear to be buddies one day and enemies the next? What are they to make of a unionist party which seems half in and half out of the Conservative party?

And what of nationalism today? Can anyone in either the SDLP or Sinn Fein tell us how espousing a united Ireland makes any logic in the current economic climate with the south virtually bust and the north so dependent on a huge Westminster hand-out?

Maybe in the past, people voted obediently and blindly for William Unionist and Seamus Nationalist and many still do. But 653,097 people in Northern Ireland didn’t vote at all last week and if I were Peter Robinson, Sir Reg Empey, Gerry Adams or Mark Durkan, I would be wanting to know why.

A wind of change needs to blow through politics here and elsewhere in the UK.

The old ways will not wash. We want no more double-jobbing, no more extravagance at Westminster and Stormont. We want open transparent government in Belfast and London. We want a realistic new vision from parties on all sides in Northern Ireland that goes beyond “vote for me, or someone else will top the poll”.

Gordon Brown may go. Gordon Brown may stay. Does it really matter? What does matter is that political parties here and in Britain need to recognise times have changed. They have lost the confidence of the people and their biggest challenge is to regain it in the months ahead.

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