Belfast Telegraph

NI Assembly Election: If you think voting is a waste of time, think again - it's a privilege

A vote in a democracy is a valuable and prized asset, and the right to cast it in a free and fair election should be cherished, says Chris Ryder

George Orwell, the distinguished political essayist, famously declared: "A people that elect corrupt politicians, imposters, thieves and traitors are not victims... but accomplices." This is a proposition, an accusation - even a challenge - that ought to be deeply pondered by every single person in Northern Ireland entitled to vote today.

What they must ask themselves is this: do you trust the integrity of any - if not all - of the political parties, or candidates, presenting themselves for election to deliver for the good of the entire community?

In making that decision, voters should consider how the outgoing parties and MLAs performed in office, how credible their policies and viable their promises were to deliver competent, lawful and efficient governance without fear, or bias, and with supreme respect for the prudent spending of taxpayers' hard-earned money.

More importantly, these criteria need to be considered by almost half of the electorate who consistently decline to vote. Despite the fact that politics directly and indirectly dominates so much of our culture, daily discourse and attitudes, the statistical evidence shows that voter turnout is actually in freefall.

Ever since the 1998 Assembly elections, turnout has steadily declined. Some 1,210,009 individuals were registered to vote in the 2011 Assembly election (an increase of 9.2% compared to the 2007 Assembly election), but actual turnout was just 55.7%.

At the most recent Assembly election in May 2016, meanwhile, 703,744 people voted - a turnout of 54.91%.

National turnout for the EU referendum last year was 72.2%, but in Northern Ireland under 63% bothered to vote despite the vast implications of Brexit for our economy and future prosperity.

The common thread running through these statistics is that those who consistently vote generally do so on tribal Orange or Green lines. Other bread and butter issues do not compromise their fundamental and conflicting perceptions of the border and the mutual contempt that characterises the political and sectarian divide, which flourishes in spite of concerted public policies to dissolve it. Children are separately educated and hundreds of millions of pounds are expended reinforcing community segregation.

It seems that, almost two decades later, long-standing prejudices still do not reflect the assiduously nuanced safeguards of the Belfast Agreement, which redefined the constitutional status of Northern Ireland more fundamentally than at any time since the partition settlement of the early 1920s.

It is thus clear from the turnout figures that a substantial block of citizens either feel secure under this umbrella, are disconnected from the political and democratic process, or are clearly apathetic. More may even be disillusioned by the feeling that their vote makes no difference and the politicians will plough on regardless.

They must wake up to the fact that they could not be more wrong. A vote in a democracy is a valuable and prized asset, and casting it in a free and democratic election is a right and a privilege to be exercised and cherished.

History shows how there have been many struggles to gain the right to vote, not least in Britain, which enjoys a widespread reputation for its mature democracy and civilised ways.

Before 1918, however, the right to vote was jealously protected by what were known as the ruling classes. Their view, as defined by Lord Palmerston in 1864, was that "every man and woman only had the right to be well-governed and under just laws".

But the franchise was reformed after the First World War, with the vote, previously restricted by gender and property qualifications, being universally extended to a total of 13 million men and about eight million women, but only those married and over 30. It wasn't until 1928 that all women were granted the right to vote on the same terms as men.

The privilege was hard-won, with many female campaigners being jailed and force-fed in prison. Most notably, in 1913, suffragette Emily Wilding Davison was fatally injured at the Epsom racecourse during the Derby, after she flung herself under the hooves of the King's horse, Anmer.

Here in Northern Ireland, the demand for one man, one vote, at the very heart of the initially cross-community civil rights campaign that emerged in the late-1960s, was quickly granted.

Beforehand, there was a restricted franchise and electoral boundaries had been gerrymandered to ensure that unionists controlled the Stormont parliament and most local councils.

After direct rule by British ministers was enacted in 1972, voting by proportional representation quickly followed.

This system - where voters can select candidates in order of numerical preference all the way down the list - endures to this day and has enabled more diverse political voices to win seats.

But after it became clear that widespread vote-stealing had taken place during some elections, registered voters are now required to produce photographic identification in the form of a British or Irish passport, or driving licence, a Translink free travel pass, or an identity card issued by the Electoral Office.

While the parties contesting this election have desperately sought to narrow the issues to the old Orange-Green scaremongering, it must not become yet another tribal headcount, supporting 'our ones' to keep 'them'uns' out.

The events of recent months and the unprecedented whiff of financial cronyism, scandal and even corruption hanging over Stormont as never before, mean that the parties and the candidates must be rigorously assessed on their personal as well as their political probity.

That also imposes a clear duty on all voters, especially the abstainers in previous elections, to come out and vote today.

Maya Angelou, the US civil rights activist and poet, told her fellow citizens: "It is your job to vote. It is your responsibility, your right and your privilege. You may be pretty or plain, heavy or thin, gay or straight, poor or rich. But remember this: in an election, every voice is equally powerful - don't underestimate your vote. Voting is the great equaliser."

Orwell and Angelou's wise words were not directly aimed at people in Northern Ireland, but the impact of what they say could not be more relevant to influencing the turnout and outcome of the landmark, turning-point election we face today.

Belfast Telegraph


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