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Public can shape the future of Northern Ireland today so don't waste your vote

Editor's Viewpoint

It may be the election that no-one expected and few outside the political bubble wanted, but it seems to have engaged the public in a way that has often been absent in the past.

The BBC debate involving the leaders of the five main parties drew an audience of around 172,000 viewers, 70% higher than for the same programme a year ago. If those figures and also the higher audiences for other keynote election programmes are reflected in the turnout at the polls today, it could see a reversal of the voting patterns of the last decade which have been consistently downwards.

As an article in this newspaper yesterday revealed, nationalist and unionist parties have seen a drop of 137,000 votes since 1998, despite 100,000 more people joining the electoral register. That is an alarming degree of apathy.

But this election is different. There is a whiff of scandal in the air - although any culpability over RHI has yet to be determined. And in another twist, a judge has ruled that corporate recipients of the RHI scheme can be named.

The resignation of Martin McGuinness after 10 years as Deputy First Minister, an action which led to this election, lent to the political drama. Now there are allegations of dirty tricks over a fake letter sent out in the name of UUP candidate Danny Kennedy, urging voters to shun the DUP, and former First Minister Peter Robinson has intervened in the political discourse.

Suddenly we have an election which is interesting with several imponderables entering the equation. Will RHI damage the DUP? Will more voters go to the polling stations? Can the UUP, SDLP and Alliance make gains? Will Sinn Fein under its new Northern Ireland leader, Michelle O'Neill, be praised or blamed for collapsing the institutions?

Quite why Peter Robinson decided to add his voice to the electioneering on the eve of polling is unclear, but his comments seemed quite statesmanlike compared to much of the toxic point scoring which has marked this campaign.

It contained an oblique commendation of Martin McGuinness's role as Deputy First Minister, saying that had he not suffered ill health this political crisis could have been avoided, but that "belligerent elements" within Sinn Fein use the opportunity to imperil the institutions.

While naturally Mr Robinson was keen to urge voters to support the DUP and keep it as the largest party, he also counselled wise heads in the inevitable negotiations which will follow today's vote. And he noted that the election was fought on the basest of terms which make those negotiations even more difficult.

He is right of course. Parties - particularly Sinn Fein and the DUP - have been keen to lay down red lines which, if adhered to, would make the negotiations even more fraught, if not impossible, to reach a compromise.

The peace process, started long before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, has been a difficult one, as it must be in a society where the body politic is so sharply divided. But diverse aspirations do not hide the fact that compromise is the only way forward.

The two communities here have to work together if the tortuous gains made are not to run into the sand.

We have seen glimpses of how it can work, but also examples of how it can go wrong if the will to work together is not present.

Today voters have an opportunity to shape how this society moves forward. The will of the people does count, but only if they exercise their electoral option. Don't waste your vote.

Belfast Telegraph

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