Belfast Telegraph

Disengaged voters reject our remote political class

Northern Ireland's electoral system needs its own 'Arab Spring' to make it fit for purpose, says Jeff Peel

In the 2010 General Election just over half the electorate in Northern Ireland - 57.6% - bothered to vote. This was the lowest turnout for all of the UK regions and the lowest turnout for a Westminster election since records began in 1945.

One could argue that part of the reason for this low turnout was the restoration of devolution. Voters here, some may argue, are less likely to vote in Westminster elections because the Assembly is responsible for more bread-and-butter issues.

However, that's not the case either, because, in the Assembly elections, turnout was even worse. Turnout, in some constituencies, including North Down and East Antrim, fell to well under 50%.

Since the elections, nothing has been done to address this problem. Our politicians are behaving like nothing is wrong; that we still have a proper political discourse and that party politics can go on as before. But they can't. In fact, there is a yawning gulf between party politics and the body politic.

Northern Ireland's system of participative democracy has been pulled asunder because of a series of perfect storm forces acting on it.

One force is the underlying desire for a proper, secular basis to our politics outside of the seriously tedious debates about 'culture' or 'identity'.

Another is the disgust at the grubby grabathon that modern politics has become, with apparatchiki political advisors, dodgy deals and shady goings-on.

But the most profound force, resulting in the disengagement of the electorate, is the sheer creepiness of the political class - one that seems incapable of understanding how bizarre local party politics seems to most of us.

The remoteness of the political class becomes more obvious when one looks at how each of the parties behaves. The DUP chooses to entirely ignore the fact that the public perception of it - and its leading dramatis personae - careered to rock-bottom because of the patronising tone it adopted in the midst of the various Robinson debacles. Rather than learning any lessons from the General Election result - that saw its party leader lose his Westminster seat to Alliance - the DUP merely re-grouped and re-secured its East Belfast seat at the Assembly elections (although turnout in Belfast East slumped from 60% in 2007 to 53.6% in 2011).

The DUP appears to have no interest in re-securing the disengaged and disenfranchised.

Similarly, Sinn Fein has chosen to ignore public disgust at the appointment of Mary McArdle as a special advisor to the Culture Minister.

The UUP has chosen to ignore the fact that its public perception - since its appointment of Tom Elliott as leader - is that it has no real relevance (if it ever had) to any voters east of the Bann.

The SDLP witters on constantly about regional politics, Ireland this and that, a pan-Irish discourse, thereby totally losing us all in its esoteric, navel-gazing rants.

The end result is the incredible, shrinking, Northern Ireland electorate. In short, the political system that created vast turnouts in the past is no longer fit for purpose for a present, and future, that requires a different type of politics.

Big turnouts of the past were the stuff of sectarian headcounts. Indeed, even in the most recent Assembly elections, the largest turnouts were in rural constituencies where the tribal drums could be beaten the loudest. Fermanagh and South Tyrone had a turnout of around 69% versus around 46% in leafy, middle-class North Down.

Northern Ireland, it would appear, needs a version of the Arab Spring. The entire basis of our party politics is wrong. Like hapless contestants on The Apprentice, local political parties set out their stalls in the wrong locations with the wrong merchandise - and hardly anyone bothers to turn up or buy.

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