Belfast Telegraph

Election 2014: Why our council poll panto is no laughing matter

By Gail Walker

So, we are going to have to get used to the new local government structures. The current 26 local authorities will be reduced to 11 and these will kick in as "shadow councils" after the elections on Thursday before becoming the formal authorities in April next year.

Areas which previously – and for generations – enjoyed a measure of autonomy and, more importantly, clear local identity, will be sharing a bedroom with some near and not so near neighbours – Newry City/Mourne/Down, Derry City/Strabane, Fermanagh/Omagh, Causeway Coast/Glens, Armagh City/Banbridge/Craigavon, Lisburn City/Castlereagh etc.

But what's most perplexing in our elections here, authority boundary changes or no, is that there will be 462 seats up for grabs and 905 candidates competing for them.

Which means that more than half of the candidates standing will actually be elected. Or, probably, re-elected.

This frankly depressing statistic makes a joke of all the hullabaloo around our election process. In short, it means that most of those whose faces have been grinning down at all of us for the best part of three months from telephone poles, trees, hedges and gable walls, can actually expect to be restored to their elected positions come what may.

Currently, out of that 462, there are three TUV councillors. That's THREE. And ONE each for the Greens, PUP and Ukip. There are also 18 "independent" councillors – perhaps varieties of disaffected unionist, nationalist, single-issue and Popular Local Character candidates – Protestant farmers with the cure for shingles.

The vast bulk of the candidates, in other words, belong to the Five Main Parties.

All of whom, barring some extraordinary and freakish outcome, will be plonking their polished behinds back in their respective council chambers after May 22 to enjoy that level of anonymity which they've got used to over the last five years.

How depressing is that?

In short, in order for there to be a genuinely contested election here at local level, let alone an unexpected result – something akin to Tommy Wright's St Johnstone getting to the final of the Scottish Cup for the first time in 130 years, let alone winning it – there would need to be an upheaval somewhere akin to Rangers being liquidated and Celtic losing at home in a season where they only lose twice all year. A set of miracles, in other words.

So, why on earth are we all subjected to this pantomime every five years? Why don't we just have elections every 20 years, when the local sectarian dividing lines might be expected to have wobbled enough, street by street, to shift a few seats one side or another?

The rest of the time, the parties should just nominate their Chosen Few at a council meeting and vote themselves all back in.

In effect, that's what they are doing now anyway.

No one is passing a poster of outgoing councillor Drew McScrabo and thinking his grey hairstyle isn't as fetching as that adorning tanned Phelim O'Divis and plumping to use their vote to oust the sitting representative.

Or that a sitting Shinner's seat is at risk from that farmer with the magic donkey he passes the shingles sufferer under.

But that's precisely what those ghastly posters and the dreadful political broadcasts pretend to imply.

How embarrassing it is to watch our politicos mimic real election broadcasts, like they have in Britain and the Republic! Pretending there's a constituency out there just waiting for the right word from them, as if the grim reality isn't obvious and as if they don't know it is because they keep it that way.

They want their game. They want us to believe that even plucky minnows in non-League football can upset the odds. That's the myth. That's what they call "the romance of the Cup".

It's also a lie.

All those election posters on trees and the piles of flyers on your doormat when you get home from work are, in fact, wads of £20 notes; YOUR £20 notes.

We don't need that panto here. We don't need that wastage, just so we can all pretend this is a democracy and not a predictable sectarian headcount where all that changes, every five years, is hairlines recede, wrinkles get deeper and grins get more and more forced.

It was a wonderful weekend for Tommy Wright and his family, for St Johnstone FC and for the good burghers of Perth.

But even they don't think it'll come round again in five years.

Follow me on Twitter: @GWalker9

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