Belfast Telegraph

Having become weary of our pantomime politics, I have exercised my right not to vote

In the face of the two dominant power blocs Fionola Meredith sees little point in going to the polls any longer

I have a confession to make. This week I broke the habit of a lifetime. I did not vote. Shucking off my civic responsibility wasn't a decision I took lightly. People fought and died for my right to participate in the electoral process. I brought up my children to be politically aware and to regard casting their votes as a democratic duty, a small but vital contribution to the future of society. You can't complain about the status quo, I told them, if you're not prepared to act to change it. Those words are ringing hollow in my own ears today.

But I am so profoundly, utterly, sick-to-the-back-teeth disillusioned with the pantomime we call politics in Northern Ireland that when it came to the bit, this time, I just couldn't make myself do it.

Election fatigue is part of the problem. I'm losing count of the number of times we've been dragged to the polls in recent years. And do you see life improving for people? What a joke. Education and health are broke, and broken. Tens of thousands of children live in poverty. We have no functioning government whatsoever at Stormont. Even when we had a government, it was radically dysfunctional, predicated on sectarian deadlock, animated only by self-indulgent moral posturing and petty culture wars.

It was the run-up to the poll, with noxious odours from the past seeping up yet again, that sealed my disenchantment. That ominous directive from the Loyalist Communities Council, an umbrella group for three loyalist paramilitary organisations, warning unionists not to vote for the Alliance party. The Shankill bomber, Sean Kelly, turning up on people's doorsteps, canvassing for Sinn Fein. Two forcible reminders that while the Troubles may be over, this remains a society which has not resolved its relationship with violence. It hangs in the air like a bad smell that won't go away.

So vote for change, isn't that the answer? If only it were so easy.

When you go into the privacy of the election booth, you do so in the hope that your vote will make a difference. But I saw no prospect of that happening in this election. The two dominant political power blocs straddle Northern Ireland like the feet of an overweight colossus, crushing the life out of all hopes for real change.

And besides, for all the hyper-ventilating about Brexit, this poll won't make a blind bit of difference to the texture - hard, soft, or somewhere cosy in-between - of any future border. Our politicians delude themselves if they think their chittering, bat-squeak voices will have a significant impact on the practical resolution of that issue. They are far less important than they think they are, and the final word will be spoken well over their heads.

None of this is a bother to the excitable, self-appointed posse of political "experts", mostly to be encountered on social media. (Those who have a genuine insight into the arcane twists of Ulster politics are much fewer in number). As usual, they'll be off on a giddy nerdathon about every aspect of the vote, getting their kicks from the 'political theatre' and the stats, and obsessing over the most trivial minutiae that none of the rest of us actually give a monkeys about. The overall situation, meanwhile, remains the same: we are stuffed.

Some people think that you should go to the polling station and spoil your vote, rather than not turning up at all. At least then you are registering some sort of protest, or so the logic goes. But this is a pointless gesture. Whatever words of outrage you scrawl on your ballot, it doesn't matter - it will just be turfed in a pile of other spoiled votes and put aside. The system does not take account of personal dissent, but rolls on regardless, eventually spitting out the more-or-less expected result.

Others argue that, like Australia or Belgium, citizens should be compelled to participate in elections, and face fines if they fail to show up at the polls.

But I have come to believe that the right to vote also includes the right not to vote, if I consider that there is nobody worth voting for, or if the candidate I prefer hasn't a hope in hell of winning.

Today we know the outcome of the General Election. Yet in Northern Ireland, we face exactly the same unholy mess that we did last week - a parliament in ruins, schools that can't afford to pay their teachers, sick people getting sicker while they wait months and years to be seen by a specialist. What has really changed?

Belfast Telegraph

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