Belfast Telegraph

Stormont may be flawed, but voting protects democracy

Editor's Viewpoint

Tomorrow, Northern Ireland voters go to the polls in an election which no one wanted and which everyone accepts throws devolution into doubt, at least in the short to medium term.

Almost 20 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, which was seen at the time as heralding a new beginning for the province, this election has followed a predictably traditional path, creating a toxic atmosphere and being fought along the lines of 'vote for us to keep them'uns out'.

It is a pragmatic ploy which continues to work for the parties, but which leaves almost half of the electorate shunning the ballot box.

Cynicism, apathy and disenchantment with the political process have been growing in recent years, and the size of the turnout tomorrow will be one of the key debating points when the votes are counted.

The election is also being held in a somewhat false atmosphere. There is no doubt that the RHI debacle played a big part in the collapse of the Assembly at Stormont, but the inquiry into how it all went so catastrophically wrong, and who was to blame, will not be held until after the vote, denying the electorate the opportunity to give its verdict based on the facts as opposed to supposition.

Perhaps one of the most depressing sights during the hustings came when a panel of politicians was confronted by university-age students in Belfast. A significant number of those students said they intended to leave the province, both for study and career opportunities. That was a damning indictment of the parties' attempts to create an inclusive society addressing real, everyday problems.

Chief among those is how to deal with Brexit. To date the electorate has been told it will be either the greatest opportunity or the greatest disaster for the province, but - uniquely in the UK - there is no agreed regional stance on how to negotiate the best deal from the EU.

We have repeatedly pointed out the failure of politicians to tackle the legacy of the past, with finger-pointing being substituted for policy. Business continues to be nervous about the future, and the long-awaited fillip of a cut in corporation tax will be further delayed by the political hiatus which will follow the election.

Indeed, it is the political institutions themselves which are under the most direct threat, with a period of direct rule seemingly inevitable. The length of it depends on how serious the parties are about the red lines they have already drawn in the sand - hardly the most mature negotiating position.

If the politicians think that the international community will come riding to their rescue, they are mistaken. Northern Ireland is a problem which the rest of the world feels is solved, and no one else really cares if it isn't.

But, of course, we cannot damn all politicians for the failures of some. There are many MLAs who have worked unceasingly - and often largely unrewarded - to improve the lot of their constituents and society in general, but it is the traditional retreat to sectarian silos come election time which casts a shadow over the whole process.

As ever, lurking in the shadows are the paramilitaries who, incredibly, still feel sufficiently emboldened to issue a death threat every day against someone in the province.

That is why the political process, for all its failings, is important. We must protect democracy by turning out to vote tomorrow. We know only too well what the failure of politics can lead to.

Belfast Telegraph

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