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General apathy at Northern Ireland boundary changes is sign of wider malaise

It doesn't matter where the constituency lines begin and end if people feel indifferent towards politics

By Peter Shirlow

Published 09/09/2016

Just 54.2% voted in the Assembly elections this year
Just 54.2% voted in the Assembly elections this year

For my generation it was terms like the flicks for the cinema, consumption and my father's insistence upon calling every business, pub and cinema that had been renamed, even if it had been renamed many times, by its original name that marked out the generations.

In recent years, when lecturing, the term 'gerrymandering' has fallen into the category of the near-redundant. Young students stare on wondering if you are mumbling or talking about somebody called Gerry Mandering.

In the 'good old days', the word was seared into the public consciousness. Us'uns and them'uns had been at the gerrymandering. The main allegations were directed at unionists who in places such as Derry had an over-representation because of how they drew electoral boundaries.

This was countered by the claim that nationalist Newry was under-representing the unionist vote, and that it was the first-past-the-post voting system that was the issue that caused nationalist under-representation.

It was an issue that led to the formation of the civil rights movement, the sense of an irreformable State and was one of the drips that led to the flood of horrors. The collapse of Stormont in 1972 led to the single transferable vote, and since then boundaries have been drawn and re-drawn to represent fairness in a process that can never be fair as far as perception is concerned.

In 2012, the last time that the boundaries were re-drawn so as to fall in line with levels of representation in the UK, the DUP asserted that the Boundary Commissioner had disproportionately affected the unionist voter.

A mere 38 representations were made to the commissioner, few attended the public hearings and the share of the unionist vote rose. No one was taking to the streets to claim injustice.

The people have moved on, and this week's proposed electoral boundary changes no longer led to micro-scrutiny of lines on a map conjoined with furrowed brows and indignation.

The lack of reaction to this week's boundary changes is a reminder of a history of past feverish passions. Only the anoraks, including myself, will bother to see which ward is where and discuss what it all means.

There may be some angst within the SDLP and UUP as the reduction in MLAs from six to five in each constituency, including the proposed loss of a constituency in Belfast, could lead to them losing seats.

A few politicians may ask that the ward that will elect us'uns will be moved in and out like some form of political hokey cokey - "You put your green leg in and take the orange leg out", or in being impartial, "You put your orange leg in and take the green leg out". But this will be a sham fight leaving most yawning as they mutter, "Get on with it".

One 'winner' will be the voters of the Shankill, who felt bereft about being in the former West Belfast constituency and who are to be in Belfast Northwest, meaning they will have MLAs and an MP of their own hue to represent them, or so they hope. There will be minor hums that places such as Dungannon and the areas around it being removed from Fermanagh and South Tyrone may affect Tom Elliott's re-election, but the Boundary Commissioner has got that right by placing this town within the same constituency as Portadown. That makes sense in terms of local business linkages and governance.

Foyle taking in Strabane is also rational as it makes the constituency more urban, which reflects what it actually is. South Antrim going into parts of the old Lagan Valley area also makes sense in terms of the social, economic and infrastructural needs of the new constituency.

What the Boundary Commissioner has generally achieved are configurations that would be normal in other societies and which reflect population densities, suburbanisation and rural communities.

This is a plan that further pinpoints the normalisation of politics and more practical-led design and geographically relevant representation.

The general silence over this week's proposed boundary changes is an example of another fire that drove asperity being largely extinguished, which in itself is notable.

It also provides a time to reflect upon what is happening in Northern Ireland's electoral politics.

We no longer vote in the numbers we once did. In the first Northern Ireland Assembly elections in 1998, 69.8% jumped out of their chairs to vote. By 2016, a mere 54.2% thought to get up and exercise their democratic right.

What we know from an ESRC study undertaken by myself and others is that those who are most motivated to vote are older (they remember Gerry Mandering), are inspired by the constitutional question and are socially conservative.

The young and more liberal remain rooted in their chairs while pondering their hipster beards or what selfie to take.

Despite a growth in what would be those from nationalist and republican communities joining the register, the SDLP and Sinn Fein have stalled.

In the past two Westminster elections, the combined SDLP and Sinn Fein vote grew by 0.5%. Small beer compared to the 7.1% growth in the UUP and DUP vote.

Where the challenge was once the demand for the need to reform an under-representative electoral system and to remove sectarian imbalance, the new political encounters must be to motivate people to engage in the political architecture.

That most certainly would mean recognising that there have been major democratic changes and that the errors of the past no longer motivate those people who did not experience them.

Changes that have embedded fairness have been good, and we should recognise that. If we do not we will increasingly have a modern society trapped within a political order dependent upon remembering the others' mistakes as opposed to building a shared future.

It does not matter where you draw the constituency boundary if people feel that there is little point engaging.

Professor Peter Shirlow FaCSS is the director of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool

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