Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: Don't write off next month's council and EU polls despite the lack of political fireworks

Polling stations will be busy in May
Polling stations will be busy in May
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Not so long ago we had one election hot on the heels of another, and what a political feast it was.

The March 2017 Assembly election was followed three months later by a Westminster one.

These were far from 'going through the motions' polls. They were roller-coaster rides which saw our parties reach new highs, and lows, and a myriad seats change hands.

The backdrop was the cash-for-ash scandal, Arlene Foster's 'don't feed a crocodile' and Mike Nesbitt's brave attempt to cross the sectarian divide with 'Vote Mike, Get Colum'.

This time, the gap between the elections will be just three weeks. We will elect our 462 councillors on May 2 and return on May 23 to choose three MEPs.

It will be a logistical and financial nightmare for our political parties. The cost of two sets of literature, posters and election broadcasts, not to mention how physically weary the canvassing teams on the ground will be.

But the big challenge for all the parties will be to enthuse and energise their base. With the Stormont institutions now suspended for two years, and with months of boring Brexit bickering, some believe there is a danger that a disillusioned electorate will stay at home.

Yet anecdotes from council election canvassers across a range of parties say people on the doors are angry but engaged.

In terms of the EU election, a change of personnel on some fronts is anticipated. Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson has signalled that he may not stand again. In 2014, the Alliance candidate was Anna Lo. The party's natural choice this time would be deputy leader and Brexit spokesperson Stephen Farry. But if Alliance polls well in the council elections and believes it could seriously maximise its vote in the EU poll, it may run leader Naomi Long.

DUP MEP Diane Dodds looked on course to replace David Simpson as the party's candidate in Upper Bann at the next Westminster election. The EU election means a change of plan and she will now defend her seat on May 23. Sinn Fein hasn't shown its hand but Martina Anderson may well run again.

In 2014, the SDLP flag-bearer was Alex Attwood. Its candidate this time round will surely be Daniel McCrossan. The West Tyrone MLA is a passionate and capable campaigner and debater, qualities which will be desperately needed given the mess that has been made of the party's link-up with Fianna Fail.

TUV leader Jim Allister is also likely to run. The former DUP MEP traditionally performs very strongly in EU elections which showcase his abilities. But the financial resources required to fight two elections, just three weeks apart, will stretch small parties like the TUV most.

Turnout in the last EU election here was just under 52%. Given the sectarianisation of Brexit, and the role the border has played in the debate, it could be higher this time round.

The fireworks of the 2017 polls may be missing, but don't write off next month's elections as totally dull affairs just yet.

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