Belfast Telegraph

Use your right at the ballot box

Editor's Viewpoint

In contrast to other parts of the UK, the election campaign in Northern Ireland has been, at best, low key and at worst, boring. It seems that the parties are so intent in not making any major gaffes which might annoy their potential supporters that they actually just became bland and predictable.

The only things they did become incensed about were social issues like same-sex marriages and changes to abortion legislation. But these are matters which have been devolved to Northern Ireland and have no real relevance to the general election debate.

It was as if the parties were determined to fight the Assembly elections a year early. However, they steered well clear of issues which will have a real impact here but for which they have no answers - the past, parading, victims, negative equity. The economy featured in political soundbites but, as one economist put it, the parties' pronouncements on economic matters read more like a wish list than sound policies.

The pact between the DUP and UUP in Fermanagh/South Tyrone, North and East Belfast and Newry and Armagh - giving each party a clear run in two of the constituencies - generated a little heat in the early days of the campaign.

In principle electoral pacts are not good for democracy by limiting the choice for voters. However, the two parties insist that their objective - to maximise the unionist vote and thereby return as many unionist MPs as possible - is defensible, even laudable, in the current circumstances where a hung parliament at Westminster seems inevitable.

The DUP has even gone so far as to draw up its demands if either the Conservatives or Labour need the party's support to form the next government. DUP leader Peter Robinson says a hung parliament could be the best thing for Northern Ireland, allowing local MPs to press for real benefits to the province.

The big question, of course, is can he deliver on this promise? If he cannot then the voters might deliver an unpleasant reminder to him at next year's Assembly elections.

Of course the biggest objection to pacts is that they are designed - no matter what the politicians say - to turn the election into a simple sectarian headcount in Northern Ireland. Few, however, will be as blatant as Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly, who candidly admits in his election material that he wants the North Belfast contest against the DUP's Nigel Dodds to be just such a headcount.

The SDLP turned down a pact with Sinn Fein. Given that party leader Alasdair McDonnell is facing a difficult battle to retain his South Belfast seat thanks to the intervention of former Sinn Fein Lord Mayor Mairtin O'Muilleoir that was quite a principled stand.

No doubt Mr McDonnell will be hoping that tactical voting will help his party. Even in what were once regarded as impregnable SDLP redoubts in South Down and Foyle, the party's candidates will be hoping for some unionist votes to see off their Sinn Fein challengers. In relatively liberal South Belfast it will be interesting to see how the votes split. Will the incumbent retain his seat or will the nationalist vote be split allowing a unionist candidate to take advantage. Ironically, Sinn Fein will be willing SDLP voters to change sides in Fermanagh/South Tyrone if sitting MP Michelle Gildernew is to defeat the agreed unionist candidate Tom Elliott.

The largely predictable nature of politics here has turned many people off. At the last general election the turnout was under 58%, the lowest of any region of the UK. It seems we are not inspired by the experience of devolved government. But everyone, including those young voters born after the Troubles ended, should exercise their voting rights. These were too hard won over too long a period to be cast aside lightly. Voting is the best way to tell politicians what you really think of them.

Belfast Telegraph

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