What’s this Assembly election really all about? Well, take a deep breath… in a nutshell — people working together for real change now to fix the health service, solve the cost of living crisis and allow us to be moving forward together in a union of people first before profit.
Oh, and Jim Allister scaring the living daylights out of everybody.
Our parties’ political broadcasts are unintentional comedy gold — though the laughs are mostly hollow and sardonic.
The very people asking for our votes on the basis of radical change in government are the very same people who have been in government for the last five years.
The trick of actually being in power and still complaining about those in power is a masterstroke which the two main parties have down to a T.
Somehow, the same politicians who spent those years in deadlock, on extended holiday for three years, or at each other’s throats, would now all appear to be on the same message. Ringing your GP hundreds of times for an appointment? Ambulance delays? Worried about the impact of the pandemic and protocol on your business? Broken by the cost of living?
Brazenly, our politicians promise revolutionary change of the status quo — despite being the status quo.
Watching these slickly-produced, self-congratulatory advertorials is like taking part in a psychological experiment to see how much guff the human brain can take without sending a message to the foot to put a boot through the TV.
Clearly, they take us for fools, easily duped by a few aerial shots of local tourist landmarks, a smattering of feelgood soundbites and the sort of bland mood-lifting music usually heard in TV shows about people’s “journeys”.
Except we’re on the road to nowhere.
In the DUP offering, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson quite literally has a mountain to climb. It’s a Scandi Noir start, with shots of feet, presumably Sir Jeffrey’s, alighting from a car in the dark and walking up a gravelly path — all to a rather chilling electronic musical score.
But then dawn breaks, the music is more reminiscent of that old ‘Local hero’ movie and Sir Jeffrey is seen hiking with friends, including new South Down hopeful Diane Forsythe.
Either that, or it’s the oldest group ever to do their Duke of Edinburgh silver badge.
Sir Jeffrey’s five-point plan promises to tackle health, cost of living and jobs. But then comes the hard ball. The protocol. A threat to the Union. And only voting DUP can stop a divisive border poll.
It’s strange to have a manifesto of complaint about a government which your own party led — albeit, thanks to last year’s summer from hell, two leaders ago. But the desire to be ‘new’ as a fresh leader is blunted by a depressingly familiar appeal to old anxieties.
In contrast to the DUP boss, Sinn Fein’s northern leader Michelle O’Neill only gets to talk on screen for about nine seconds. Oddly, top billing goes to John Finucane MP, who isn’t even standing for election.
Odder still, while Sir Jeffrey circles the unionist wagons, Sinn Fein is all outreach and diversity. John tells us he’s “the son of an east Belfast mother who grew up in a middle-class unionist area and a west Belfast father who grew up in a nationalist working-class area. I am a republican but I have family members who are unionist and relatives who were in the Orange Order”.
It’s hard to believe private polling told Sinn Fein that unionist votes were there for the taking should candidates fess up to Orange ancestry. Perhaps John’s prominence is down to his own cementing of a party base in North Belfast.
Sinn Fein also had its internal eruptions in 2021, the Derry party restructured with the removal of Martina Anderson and Karen Mullan as MLAs. Media focus has been on unionism in-fighting, but watch out for the Derry results.
Surprisingly there’s little mention by Sinn Fein of its united Ireland/border poll ambitions. Perhaps surveys indicating even nationalists are worried about sudden change has knocked that on the head.
Promising to tackle health, jobs and educate children together, John also takes a pop at the British Government which “does not care about us”. Since the North Belfast MP still adheres to the anachronistic policy of abstention from Westminster, the Government can say he doesn’t care much about them either.
Like Michelle, UUP leader Doug Beattie only gets a walk-on part at the tail-end of their video. What will its ‘union of people’ do? Yep, tackle health, cost of living, jobs. The irony being there hasn’t even been a union of unionists as distasteful events at anti-protocol rallies have shown, targeting Doug in particular.
Colum Eastwood is the star of the SDLP show, however. Painfully modern, we get rockier music, arty black and white footage and shots of rapt listeners. Colum has some good lines — “hot tempers at Stormont don’t heat a single home” — but the ‘People First’ message seems a steal from People Before Profit. A revival of its old labourite principles rather than the usual soft nationalist ones?
Alliance leader Naomi Long also owns her party’s broadcast, narrating it before appearing at the end. Many will do a double-take at the opening footage, mistakenly thinking they’ve spotted the DUP’s Sammy Wilson driving a truck. But it’s just a man with a similar moustache. A party normally clever at PR, this felt curiously tired — soundbites in big letters on-screen.
People Before Profit’s film has a retro vibe — candidates walk in slo-mo on urban streets discussing — you guessed! — jobs, cost of living and the NHS. Still, good to see a clip of Eamonn McCann at his very best.
Meanwhile, the Greens’ broadcast takes a talking heads format. Both parties, which are genuinely outside power, have found their policy platforms plundered by traditional parties genuinely inside power.
Arguably the best broadcast comes from the TUV which opens with all the drama of an impending nuclear catastrophe — presumably how it would view Michelle O’Neill as First Minister.
But leader Jim Allister does drive home explicitly the core politics of Northern Ireland. Perhaps paradoxically somewhere in that dark cloud of rhetoric lie the actual issues — self-determination, hurt, cultural identity, resentment, respect and the lack of it; above all, victims.