And so one of the most curious election campaigns of recent times nears the end. In truth the campaign in Northern Ireland never came close to sparking to life.
Across the water there were signs of life, evidence of the articulation of a choice and grandmother Gillian Duffy to enter campaign trail folklore. Here all that seemed very far away, we were reduced literally to watching it all on television as if it didn't really affect us at all.
At the start of the election the Belfast Telegraph called on local parties to throw aside blame culture and concentrate on vision. We hoped green and orange politics would be set aside for a concentration instead on what our would-be MPs might actually do if elected to Westminster. How would their parties, with the obvious and depressing exception of Sinn Fein, be making Northern Ireland's voice heard in one of the most crucial Parliamentary terms in post-war history? Amid the tough decisions and the unprecedented cost-cutting, would we be properly represented?
We have to say that we made our call more in hope than expectation. We expected little and we weren't disappointed. Sectarian politics reared its head early on with the decision of unionists to unite to fight Sinn Fein in Fermanagh/South Tyrone and Sinn Fein's call for a reciprocal response in South Belfast.
SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie is to be congratulated for resisting even if Sinn Fein did unilaterally withdraw its candidate. Until more parties are prepared to stand on their own with their own policies for the governance of Northern Ireland and contribution to the governance of the UK, even if that means electoral defeat, we will be condemned forever to inhabit a sterile world of yah-boo politics, sectarian slice-ups and fear as the fuel for voting.
In the end the parties' manifestos failed to inspire. There were plenty of wishlists and little idea of how any of it would be paid for.
On the unionist side this newspaper made no secret of its doubt about the wisdom of the Ulster Unionist Party's pact with the Conservatives. This had the effect of corralling all wings of the party, liberal and conservative, into the blue corner much to the chagrin of many. It seemed to us that a clear and separate Northern Irish campaign would have been more appropriate. This would not of course have ruled out Parliamentary alliances with the Tories on some issues after the election. However doubts about the pact are not the same thing as dismissal of the party. A revival of fortunes for the UUP would not be a bad thing. A reinvigoration of the middle ground would be welcome. This stands for the SDLP too.
Parties that have vision and are prepared to reach out beyond the old slogans and symbols are worthy of the support of those of us who want to see an end to Punch and Judy politics. In this election campaign none of the parties have been able to prove they are quite capable of this shift yet.
In a Westminster election the onus on Northern Irish parties to stand firmly behind worked-out policies is not high. We make up the numbers as special interest groups who may well hold strong leverage in the event of a hung Parliament. But at next year's Assembly elections the cry from this paper and others for proper thought through policies for the health and wealth of this country will be louder than ever.
In the end we may well get the politicians we deserve. The time may be here for all of us to throw off the blinkers. We should accept that at elections the national question is for another day. We may all get to vote on that one in a another time and place. We could and should put that consideration well down the list of our priorities when it comes to voting. Unless we challenge politicians to up their game, give us clear thinking on important issues, abandon
“trench warfare” this poor state of affairs will continue.
There were signs in the rest of the UK that the message was getting through to the main parties. Real tangible differences poked their heads above the hubbub now and again. The Liberal Democrats challenged the orthodoxies in a refreshing way although the suspicion remains that it was more to do with the X Factor-style TV debates. Nevertheless, the traditional parties had to change their thinking, work harder at what they were selling, spell out the differences. The task will be harder here for sure but it can be done. Is it not too fanciful that, in time for next year, we may get our own “Clegg moment” that throws the traditional political planets off their orbits, forcing some kind of realignment?
The Belfast Telegraph will not be supporting any particular party in Northern Ireland at this election. Our job has been to give our readers as much information as we can on the choices they must make in the ballot box. There have been glimmers of good sensible policies from all of the parties and there are some impressive candidates out there, people who, win or lose, we need to continue in public life.
There is hope that cross-community, imaginative, taboo-breaking ideas and thinking can continue to emerge and when they do that they find fertile, not barren ground, on which to grow. For that reason alone we urge you not to abandon the democratic process. Turn out tomorrow and vote. Keep in the game so to speak, for we may even win it in the end.