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Poster boys and girls a bad advert for politics here

By Fionola Meredith

Published 15/04/2016

Fianna Fail candidate Pat 'The Cope' Gallagher
Fianna Fail candidate Pat 'The Cope' Gallagher

Roll on May the fifth. Not because I'm excited about the entirely predictable outcome of the election - even typing the word makes me reel with torpor - but because it means our streets will soon be cleared of that lurid by-product of the impending vote: election posters.

Other, more civilised countries have already done away with these ridiculous objects. Presumably they trust their citizens to be able to make a decision about who to vote for based not on a metre-high photograph of a candidate's grinning mush, but on their stated values, previous achievements and detailed plans for the future.

Not here, of course. Instead we are invited to choose from a visual smorgasbord of smug smilers that's weirdly similar to the picture menus you get in those tourist-only restaurants abroad. You know, the ones where they display pictures of the food rather than written descriptions, because you no can speak the language, and they want to flog you a nasty, overpriced meal.

I find it hard to believe that an individual is any more likely to vote for a specific candidate based on seeing their face replicated 20 times on every lamppost on their street.

Are the images supposed to have some mysterious effect on our unconscious minds, like those old subliminal adverts where they used to flash up slogans too fast for people to register in the hope that the audience would be brainwashed into buying the product?

No matter how much you despise these images you can't help looking at them, and pondering the thinking behind them. It's always grimly amusing to see aspiring representatives, desperate to be returned to Stormont, putting on their cheesiest, most ingratiating grins. Some are fairly convincing; others look like the unnatural act of smiling actually hurts them.

This time round I'm especially fascinated by the TUV posters, where party leader Jim Allister hovers like a chortling spectre behind his candidates, conferring his benediction upon each one of them.

I felt a small pang for Labour Alternative candidate Sean Burns, who appears to have his T-shirt on back-to-front.

At least it's not quite as bad here as they have it in the South, where you can barely move for posters, placards and billboards during canvassing time. Driving to Donegal in the run-up to the Republic's election I saw so many pictures of Fianna Fail candidate Pat 'The Cope' Gallagher I felt like I'd known him intimately for years, though not by choice. I even had a dream with Pat The Cope in it that night, which indicates that maybe these things do have some deep-seated sub-cognitive effect. I still wouldn't vote for him, though.

Clearly the parties themselves think that it's a worthwhile exercise, with every candidate spending roughly £2,000 on the things and much jockeying for position on prominent lampposts. Tales of dirty tricks abound: you hear of ladders going up in the dead of night to whisk away rival posters.

Previous attempts to get political agreement on abandoning the signs altogether have failed because no party wants to take the risk of agreeing to desist, then finding themselves caught out by unscrupulous opponents reneging on the agreement and sticking up posters all over the shop. In the proud, aggressive, hyper-masculine world of local politics there's nothing worse than being seen to lose face.

The whole point of the posters - at least those of the main unionist and nationalist parties - is that they are designed to engage with the gut, not the brain. They are little more than territorial markers, flags in sign form, brash claims staked on ownership of particular communities. This is my lamppost, they say, and by extension my area. It's not so very different from a dog cocking its leg. Meanwhile, the smaller parties feel they have no other option but to follow suit if they wish to be seen as credible players in the same tawdry game.

But it's not all bad news. Just after last year's general election a friend of mine, known for her love of practical jokes, commandeered a poster of the DUP's Jonathan Bell from a lamppost on a traffic island. She removed the plastic ties and stuffed the picture into the back of her car, marvelling at the scale of the thing, which was well over life-size. Then she took the poster home, cut out Bell's grinning face and upper body and tucked it into the matrimonial bed. Her husband's shriek when he pulled back the covers later that night could be heard for miles around. Now that's what I call creative recycling.

Belfast Telegraph

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