Belfast Telegraph

Mike Nesbitt deserves credit, but much more is required to capture public imagination: Alban Maginness

UUP leader's vote transfer gesture was admirable, but people have still to be convinced his party and the SDLP can work together, says Alban Maginness

Mike Nesbitt was very courageous in publicly saying that he would transfer his vote, after voting for his UUP colleagues, to the SDLP candidate in his home constituency of East Belfast.

In doing so he broke the iron law of Ulster politics, which is that sectarian solidarity trumps all in elections. In other words, you vote for "your own" first and last.

You support your own political community and let the "other lot" do their own thing.

In breaking that law of sectarian solidarity, he risked alienating the greater unionist family and elements in his own party, but garnered support from the nationalist community for his imaginative and magnanimous gesture. In practical electoral terms, it probably would have only a marginal effect on the result of an Assembly election, especially in East Belfast, but his gesture has a substantial symbolic effect, for it is a step-change in the thinking of a unionist leader in an electoral contest.

The act of transferring a vote to a nationalist candidate is a pioneering political act that betokens a new mood in unionist politics. It breaks down the "them-and-us" attitude and creates the possibility, at least, of an alternative to the bitter and bad-tempered politics of the DUP and Sinn Fein duopoly at Stormont.

Nesbitt does not promise a lot, except that he and Colum Eastwood will work together in goodwill and "build a cross-community partnership government". There is no common manifesto or agreed policies, but the simplicity of the message is both refreshing and attractive to an electorate that feels increasingly frustrated and powerless.

Many people feel bitterly disappointed with the failure of politics to work in a harmonious manner at Stormont and they are fed up with endless crises. People crave a political system that can reconcile the historic divisions that led to 30 years of death and misery during the Troubles.

The RHI debacle and the meltdown of the institutions was, for many, the last act in a tragic political drama that was inevitably doomed to failure. Incessant crises were the order of the day and nobody sensed any great sense of trust, healing or hope after 10 years of bruising co-existence between Sinn Fein and the DUP.

So, in making the transfer of votes gesture, Nesbitt has opened up the real possibility of change in the political system.

But people have yet to be convinced that the UUP and SDLP can work together as a dynamic partnership in government and that they are in fact a real political alternative.

Their collective goal must be to persuade a very jaded and cynical public that they have the joint capacity to bring about a real change in the political culture of this society.

Together, in the media, they have projected themselves as a team that can do business in government. The fact that they can publicly laugh, talk and smile together in a natural and friendly fashion is a promising start, but more is required for them to capture the public's imagination. Once they have convinced a sceptical electorate that they are a real alternative, then they will have an even greater challenge in getting a substantially increased turnout on election day.

A tired and weary electorate have consistently protested their disgust with politics in the past by simply staying at home. It wasn't apathy that made them stay at home, but disappointment and fatigue with the way our politics developed. Naturally, people saw little prospect of politics improving and lost the motivation to vote.

It is interesting to be reminded that this was not always so, and in the very first Assembly election the turnout was a record 70%.

The reason why the first Assembly election turnout was so good was because there was hope and excitement in the air and ordinary electors felt driven to enthusiastically support a new political system arising out of the Good Friday Agreement and the creation of a genuinely reconciled society.

But if you contrast that first Assembly election in 1998 with the last Assembly election in May 2016, you can see a serious and substantial decrease in voter turnout of 15%.

This was the culmination of a process of alienation by the electorate from the political system that they saw was just not working for them.

But what was extraordinary was, only one month later in June 2016, the voter turnout for Brexit was 63%, a spike in turnout of 8%, amounting to 90,000 more voters.

The lesson to be learnt from the Brexit referendum was that people will vote in much greater numbers when their interests are being truly served.

Now there is clearly a hunger among the electorate waiting for their interests to be served.

Only the Opposition can do that for them.

Belfast Telegraph

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