Belfast Telegraph

Voters need to demonstrate their rejection of dissidents

By Maurice Hayes

There are currently elections in progress, both north and south, which are, in their own way, important for social stability and the preservation of democratic politics on the island.

In the south, the election for what we are told is to be the last Senate is proceeding under the radar; here in the north, where there are two elections and a referendum on May 5, it is all to be taken more seriously.

The local council elections here are, like the Senate in the south, intended to fill seats on bodies which have been designated for major restructuring, if not extinction. The Assembly election, however, is vitally important for future political development and stability.

The referendum is a UK-wide poll demanded by the Lib-Dems as the price for coalition, which proposes to change the voting system in Westminster elections from first-past-the-post to the alternative vote (AV) in single-seat constituencies.

The reaction in Northern Ireland has been one of almost total uninterest, and the referendum on its own would not attract a turnout of more than 10%.

The challenge for the political parties is to protect the other two votes from the viral contagion of voter apathy. The primary concern in present circumstances should be to demonstrate that politics works and to convince the wider public to choose politics and shared objectives as an alternative to violence and anarchy.

It would be a sad day for the longer-term prospects of peace and stability if a disillusioned electorate were to show their lack of faith in the political system by simply staying at home. The main achievement of the retiring Assembly and Executive is to have completed the full four-year term without suspension or walk-out and to have sustained the integrity of the political system. But the public now wants more than this. They point to the failure to restructure local government, to reform the public service, to sort out education policies, to agree a policy on community relations, to secure joined-up government, or to take decisions on any reasonable time-scale on almost anything.

It must be regarded as progress that the election is being fought on bread-and-butter issues of social and economic concern: jobs, education, health, the environment and economic development, and not on old tired slogans or constitutional mantras.

However, this presents the parties with another set of challenges as the economy falters and the Treasury imposes swingeing cuts. In the face of this, the parties offer little more than shrill protest and promises of improvement without much to back them up.

In spite of the inability of the Executive to function consistently as a corporate entity, some ministers have distinguished themselves, others have been competent, and some others have been simply invisible.

Arlene Foster (DUP) and Michelle Gildernew (SF) were among the high achievers, while Alex Attwood (SDLP) has impressed with a late run. The clear winners have been Peter Robinson (having survived the loss of his Westminster seat and considerable personal trauma) and Martin McGuinness, who have shown a willingness and a capacity to work together in the public interest.

Their two parties - with 36 and 28 seats respectively - dominated the last Assembly and will do so next time, but both the Ulster Unionists and SDLP approach the election from positions of comparative weakness.

Both bear the scars of recent leadership struggles, both show signs of internal division on important policy issues, and both express themselves more in barbed comments on their nearest rivals than in policy terms.

Ulster Unionists will not suffer the wipeout of the last Westminster election, but they will find it hard to garner votes in the north-west given their position on cancer services in Derry and the axing of the A5 upgrade.

Along with the SDLP, they may lose votes to Alliance, given the profile of David Ford as Minister for Justice and the prominence of Naomi Long and Anna Lo. The SDLP are also vulnerable to the activism of Sinn Fein on local populist issues. Sinn Fein, whose support might have wobbled locally in some areas, will have been strengthened there by reaction to the murder of Constable Ronan Kerr and public revulsion at dissident activity, which may be expressed in electoral terms.

More widely, those who deplore such activity need to go further than condemnation. The best practical answer for those who do not have information to give to the police is to come out and vote on May 5.

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