Belfast Telegraph

Trump, Brexit, Isis... we discuss everything, but our excuse for a political system is off the agenda

We prefer dealing with global issues than with disconnect on our own doorstep, writes Gail Walker

There is no doubt that, out there, in the wider world, there is a real change under way. It's not just that major votes in recent years have gone against predictions, or against what the media and pundits and polls insisted would be the outcome. The 2009 General Election, the Scots IndyRef 2014, General Election 2015, Brexit 2016 and the US presidential poll last November ... all ended up eluding the forecasters in quite embarrassing ways and wrong-footing politicians, activists and political commentators alike.

Many still haven't got over the shock of the results yet, and each new poll only serves to deepen and widen the gulf between wishful thinking and reality.

Moreover, there is a host of elections forthcoming in Europe which could very well signal a wholesale shift in the political temperament of the continent as a whole. It's all change. Open any newspaper, click on the internet, or even just say something to a colleague over the coffee machine, and what you will get in return is a torrent of opinion, loudly expressed, vigorously proposed, delivered as a challenge.

Whether on the Left or Right (that's if those terms actually mean anything anymore), there is a sense that getting involved matters - if only to rant at a loved one who has the temerity to question your total rightness. About everything.

But the point is that things are being argued, being discussed. Being fought over. There is, to use that old buzzword, "engagement". But not 'ere. Not in Northern Ireland. Or - to be more accurate - not in our traditional party politics.

Stick your head round any cafe in Belfast and you may find yourself in an argument about Brexit, or Trump, or Corbyn, or even Marie Le Pen. But not Stormont. Not the forthcoming Assembly election.

And that must be bad. Because it shows that many of us, tired of the perpetual groundhog day that passes for politics here, are silently abandoning the system.

Many of us are, paradoxically, making ourselves both external and internal exiles, turning to our private domestic and work world for value and meaning and purpose; and to the outside world for our big political opinions.

Brexit, Isis, immigration, climate change, Syria. We will have rallies to show how nice we are on immigration policy, but not on victims of our own Troubles. We will lecture American voters on President Trump's Mexican wall, amid the ruins of our own Assembly, collapsed by the sheer weight of our own sectarian attitudes. We have even wagged our collective fingers at the US over their gun laws!

We never see the irony. Even so, it's no surprise we are more at home with global issues than the fact none of our close friends are Catholics ... or Protestants, according to how the cap fits.

There is another factor, of course. In Northern Ireland, many voters are trapped in a system that doesn't represent them. What we are witnessing is hopelessness. We all know - give or take the odd seat - that the result next time will be much the same as last time.

Because elections here are not about "issues", "values", or "scandals". They are solely about keeping the other side out. But not so far out that the show cannot be patched up in a quick fix and kept on the road a bit down the line.

It is the perfect mix for apathy and disillusionment. And, as any fool can tell you, atrophy and rot go hand-in-hand.

We are 23 years now from the 1994 ceasefires; 19 years from the Good Friday Agreement. Remember the cover of the document we called The Agreement back then? Remember that family staring into the middle distance and a bright sunrise? Well, we are today on the horizon they were only able to gaze at.

We are, today, two decades on, living in the very future which seemed so distant then, but which the rhetoric of those days talked about as the one which was supposed to be "at stake" in the all-island referendum.

This is the future we were all promised - terror-free, more secure, more just, more sane.

The problem is, it doesn't feel like it.

I'm not talking about the fact that the "united Ireland" that was supposed to be "closer in 20 years" hasn't arrived yet for those who still think their lives are defined by wanting it.

Or about the fact that there is still uneasiness among unionists about the persistence of potential terror groups and still the requirement for them to "share power", when they would clearly prefer just to exercise it in an old majority rule way. For those people, nothing would have made much of a difference other than continuing violence in any case.

No. It doesn't feel like it, because our evasion of democracy simply hasn't won the energy and commitment of our population the way it should have done. Turnouts have been tumbling over many years here, hovering just over 50% at last year's Assembly elections - 54.2% to be precise. I suspect it will be even lower this time around.

What would happen if turnout for Stormont fell below 50%? Constitutionally, nothing. The 90 MLAs will still meet - or not, depending on circumstances. Probably little will change in terms of media. It is much easier to comment on a something than a nothing; easier to get het up about Count 7 in Strangford and get all the usual talking heads in the studio to shout at each other and proclaim their mandate. And yet ... it should mean something. While I have little sympathy with non-voters, because many of them simply can't be bothered dragging themselves down to the local primary school, many this time who won't be voting will be doing so not out of laziness, but out of contempt for a depressing and failed political culture.

The fact that our politics is still off the agenda here in casual conversation, because of fear and intimidation and sectarian pigeon-holing, is only one aspect to our failing social structures. Another is voter apathy - where the fear of expressing a view socially is exactly matched by the sense that casting a ballot makes no real difference at all.

If we live in a system where only a minority casts ballots, has that system lost legitimacy? In the long run, we can go into many different exiles - internal, external, hedonistic, or angry - but this place needs an engaged citizenry.

We need to be talking as much about here as Trump, Brexit and Article 50. For better, or worse, "here" is where we actually live. Of course, many places and elections have low turnouts. But that cannot be accepted as an excuse, or as some weird sign of "normality".

This isn't a "normal" society. Not many places have as much at stake every time as Northern Ireland does.

Maybe it's time for compulsory voting in Northern Ireland. But with the proviso that every ballot paper should have an extra option, in addition to the usual list of candidates. It would make our politicians think a wee bit harder about what politics is and how their voters actually feel - and I'd say the turnout would rise dramatically - if people could tick that intriguing little box marked "None Of The Above".

Belfast Telegraph

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