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Northern Ireland Assembly Election: None of the above - how the disengaged could help drive long overdue change

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The ballot box is the only way that change can take place

The ballot box is the only way that change can take place

The ballot box is the only way that change can take place

One thing that you can usually expect to happen when a country begins the journey from conflict to post-conflict is the emergence of entirely new political parties, a new generation of leaders, a widening of the political debate and a significant upturn in voting, particularly from the young.

So, hopes were high when the May 1998 referendum delivered a turnout of 81% and evidence of voting from people who hadn't voted before or hadn't voted for years.

Yet, just a few weeks later, in June 1998, the election to the new Assembly saw a 12% drop in turnout from the referendum, down to about 69%. Intriguingly, Alliance, which would have been expected to benefit, was almost 10,000 votes down on its tally at the 1997 general election.

A second worrying sign was the fact that anti-Agreement unionists polled 206,657 votes to the pro-Agreement unionist tally of 192,859. And when factoring in that six of the UUP's MLAs were either anti or agnostic, it left Trimble in a minority position and at the mercy of both the DUP and Sinn Fein.

But the most interesting question of all at that point is why 142,000 people who had voted in the referendum (and the evidence suggests that a significant majority of them had probably voted for the Agreement) didn't bother coming out a few weeks later to elect candidates who would then have had a strong enough majority to implement it? Why did they opt out? Why have they never opted back in again?

Another thing worth noting about that first election was the absence of a major, new, genuinely post-conflict party. That's probably understandable because the gap between signing the Agreement, putting it to a referendum and then the Assembly election was much too short for a credible vehicle to emerge.

There were some smaller parties, though - the Women's Coalition, Ulster Democratic Party, United Kingdom Unionist Party and PUP - but they gathered just 10% between them and all but the PUP (hovering around 2% now) have since folded.

Now, a matter of days before the fifth election to the Assembly and 18 years since the referendum, we still don't have the new parties (the Greens and Ukip don't count because they existed before 1998, the TUV is a protest offshoot, and NI21 was mostly farce); we don't have a new generation of leaders (although the five main parties have new voices saying much the same as before); we don't have a widening of political debate (because most issues are subject to veto, petitions of concern and kicking down the line); and turnout has continued to drop (about 54% at the 2011 Assembly and around 51% in the 2014 local government elections).

It is very difficult to give momentum to a peace process when these four conditions are not being met, so it's really no surprise that we continue to have conflict stalemate rather than conflict resolution.

And it's no surprise that political engagement has, once again, consolidated around a parody pas-de-deux involving the lead parties of unionism and republicanism: although in fairness to the DUP and Sinn Fein it's worth pointing out that the UUP and SDLP have huge relationship difficulties of their own.

I noted in a recent piece for the Belfast Telegraph that something "very big is happening in the political undergrowth in Northern Ireland, suggesting that the growing disconnect between the Assembly and that undergrowth will force unstoppable change on to the agenda".

Yet that change can only be implemented on the floor of the Assembly. Social media and occasional rallies have an important part to play, if only by letting people know that they are not alone in their beliefs and concerns. Public petitions and campaigns can bring a particular issue to a wider audience - as we have seen with abortion and same-sex marriage - but, in reality, that doesn't amount to a hill of beans either when it comes to legislation.

A BBC debate on Wednesday evening between an audience of first-time voters (the Good Friday Agreement generation) and a panel of DUP, Sinn Fein, UUP, SDLP and Alliance candidates revealed just how wide is the gap, the disconnect if you like, between the remnants of conflict politics and those teenagers who want to do things differently.

The sheer despair and exasperation coming from the audience, combined with what often looked like rabbit-in-the-headlight responses from the politicians, suggested that many of these potential first-time voters won't be bothering after all.

There was a time when I would have agreed with them. Why vote for parties who don't reflect your worldview and values? Why vote for candidates just because someone tells you that it is your "civic duty" to vote?

Why vote just because someone tells you that you have no right to complain about the Assembly if you don't cast a vote? Why vote for smaller parties or independents who will not be in a position to deliver the sort of change you want? Put bluntly, why vote?

Voting just for the sake of voting and voting for the least-worst options does nothing more than keep turnout above 50%; and that in turn allows the parties to say that all is well and that the 108 MLAs represent a majority of what the electorate thinks.

Yet it does nothing to widen the political debate or move Northern Ireland forward. It does nothing to address the concerns of those who feel disenfranchised by a political/electoral/institutional system they believe to be stacked against them.

It does nothing to encourage new political vehicles, which will find it even harder to make progress when MLA numbers are cut from 2021.

So, how do you send a message to the Assembly? Or how, as a young man tweeted to me after the BBC debate, "do changing views turn into changing actions?"

A turnout lower than 50% robs the Assembly and Executive of moral and political authority, but it also makes it very difficult for them to pursue change, precisely because they wouldn't, collectively, represent a majority anymore.

Writing something on the ballot paper has some attractions, but the returning officer does not read out comments. But what would happen if the invalid/spoiled votes, which usually account for 1%-2% amounted to 10% or 15% or 20%, or more?

Would it send a message to the parties if the percentage of invalid votes were greater than their own tally? Would a substantial and measurable level of discontent finally make them realise that they had to do something?

Would it act as an encouragement to that "undergrowth" I spoke of, to start new parties?

One thing is clear. If change is coming it will have to come through the ballot box.

The task for voters, non-voters and first-time voters is working out the best way of sending that "we want change" message.

Belfast Telegraph