Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 23 November 2014

Tribal poll results are a dose of political reality

There were no surprises in the Mid Ulster by-election in which Francie Molloy of Sinn Fein retained the Westminster seat with 5% fewer votes than last time, when Martin McGuinness was the successful candidate.

In the wake of this voting, the parties are seeking to find comfort from their share of the poll. This is predictable, but many people throughout the province will conclude that within the secrecy of the polling booth, most Northern Ireland voters retreat time after time into their traditional tribalism.

There were hopes that Catholics who privately support the Union would have helped the agreed unionist candidate. It is clear, however, that most of these aspirations were overcome by the realities of political life when voters faced up to the choice confronting them on their ballot papers.

The small reduction in the Sinn Fein vote may be attributed to several factors, including the loss of some of the personal support which Martin McGuinness enjoyed last time. The shortfall in Sinn Fein votes in Thursday's election could also be due to the complacency of a less well-oiled party machine, and also the fact that on a raw winter's day some people just did not bother to vote.

Overall, however, this by-election was largely an insult to the people of Mid Ulster. No striking political ideals were expounded, there was little real debate and it appeared that the parties expected to herd the voters into orange and green pens once again, like so many political cattle.

Both sides can take little credit from this by-election. The outcome has greatly disappointed people who backed plurality of choice as the best way forward for the future of the country.

Their vision of parties vying for votes on the strength of their case rather than tribal labels, was lost again in the tribalism that plagues Northern Ireland elections.

Within a few days the fuss will die down, but everyone involved in this election should note the increasing number of people who did not bother to vote at all, and ask themselves why this is so.

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