Belfast Telegraph

Tired, bored or thorougly alienated by politics? Just hold your nose and vote

I totally understand why people shun ballot box, says Fionola Meredith, but it is the only hope we have of achieving change

Have you succumbed to pre-election fatigue yet? I know I have. The symptoms are unmistakeable.

Loud, uncontrollable groans that burst out of you, unbidden, when you hear yet another mediocre politician promising you miraculous, transformative change if only you'll cast your vote for them - however badly they've screwed up in the past.

The choking tedium that envelops you when a party political broadcast pops up on TV, a symptom that is only minimally relieved by marvelling at the terrible clunkiness of the product. I mean, did you see Jim Allister's special election crossword?

All those super-size mugshots of politicians beaming unnaturally from lampposts and street signs, following you with their eyes, can leave you teetering on the verge of paranoia. The shovelfuls of party literature delivered to our doors are just as bad. I've trained my dog to shred them the second they come through the letterbox.

As for the posse of interchangeable and largely self-appointed political experts, mostly men of a certain age, who treat every inconsequential move that our politicians make as a matter of Earth-shattering significance - well, they and their ponderous nerdathons simply put me to sleep. I suppose I should be grateful. Wake me up after March 2. Or don't bother, actually. The fun won't stop there.

The inertia I'm currently feeling helps me to understand why people don't vote. I get that apathy. Voter turnout has been in steady decline for years. It hit an impressive 70% in 1998, when we were feeling all exuberant and hopeful about the bright new future - we soon had that kicked out of us, didn't we? But since then it's been bumping slowly downhill. 63% in 2003, 62% in 2007. By the time we got to 2016 it was a paltry 54.9%. So almost half the population now choose not to exert their electoral rights.

Why? Well there's a powerful, almost fatalistic sense that change is impossible, and that the sectarian stranglehold that for so long has defined Northern Ireland politics is inevitable.

This is not an irrational point of view. The core tribal vote on both sides is incredibly strong. It is fuelled by fear, and it comes from the gut, not the brain, so it is not susceptible to logic or persuasion.

That's why it is largely unaffected by even the most egregious scandals. The loyalty of the hard-core vote remains steady, no matter what, because the fundamental instinct is that their tribe - however base or bloody - must win.

So you could be forgiven for thinking: why bother? To the sword with the lot of them.

I know many people who think just that. Especially this time around, after the Assembly collapsed in a welter of gross ineptitude, overweening arrogance and bitter recriminations. And that's before we've even begun to unpick the allegations of corruption over RHI. A LucidTalk poll published earlier this month found that the majority of people in Northern Ireland would prefer something - anything - other than the return of the Executive.

But even now, I'm going to make myself do it. On March 2 I will drag myself out of my torpor, traipse down to the polling station, and there I will cast my vote.

I won't be doing it with pleasure or pride, or even a great deal of conviction. For those of us unswayed by primitive identity politics or simple prejudice, there are few candidates who match up exactly with our individual views. The best you can hope for is the least worst option. Somebody who might be in with a chance of making things a little bit better, or at least not making them worse. It's as well to keep your expectations low. Experience should teach us that much.

This may not be a ringing endorsement of our hard-won democratic rights, but it's all we've got.

There's no point whinging about the terrible state of Stormont if you're not prepared to have the tiny say that the system allows us. Don't consider doing something daft like spoiling your vote as a protest. It's a futile, egotistical gesture that is worse than useless.

During this dull period of pre-election doldrums, for me there was one moment of optimism. My grown-up children will be away at university when the election is held. But on their most recent visit home they went to the Electoral Office and signed up so they could vote by proxy. They care about this crazy, contradictory place despite everything. And, like many of their generation, they want to change it for the better.

Maybe - just maybe - hope is possible after all.

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