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Column: Why are people disengaging with politics in Northern Ireland?

Following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, more than 70 per cent of people turned out to elect the first assembly. Fast forward 15 years and the people seem disenchanted, but why, asks David McCann.

Dr David McCann Lecturer, Ulster University

OVER THE PAST month we have been reflecting on the fifteenth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Looking back through the newspapers at that time you can see the palpable sense of hope that not just three decades of violence were coming to an end but that a better form of politics and governance awaited us.

The fact that 70 per cent of people turned out to elect the first assembly illustrates the high level of engagement among the general public. The election resulted in the UUP and SDLP leading with the DUP and Sinn Fein a close second. Outside of the four main parties we had a range of minor parties going from Alliance to the Women’s Coalition.

What’s changed in 15 years?

Northern Irish politics was interesting, diverse and most importantly it was competitive. So what has changed in fifteen years I hear you ask? Well quite a bit and very little of it is for the better. Let’s take the issue of turnout in elections. Since 1998 there has been a consistent fall in the number of people voting in Northern Ireland with more than 160,000 people opting out of the political process.

Just to put this in context that is a 1 per cent drop year on year since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. If this trend continues by the next assembly election turnout will drop below 50 per cent.

Think about what is currently going on in Northern Ireland we have an executive introducing cuts of £3 billion, paralysis over how to reform education and rising unemployment. Yet we have half of the electorate opting to sit in washing their hair come election day. So what on earth is causing this disenchantment? Contrary to the image the positive image that is always portrayed within the media while people in Northern Ireland are relieved to have a stable government, very few are actually impressed with its performance as Stormont’s approval rating is currently at just 9 per cent.

Mandatory coalition system

To make matters worse with Northern Ireland’s mandatory coalition system, the current parties in power have little to worry about as it is measurably harder for the general public to achieve a change of government. Stormont must be the only legislature in Europe that could boast that the entire membership of their opposition could fit into the back of a taxi. So if general apathy is the problem, what could possibly be the solution?

The solution I feel lies in broadening of the political base in Northern Ireland. Since 2003 political life in the province has become dominated by Sinn Fein and the DUP. The fact that these parties face relatively little electoral challenge from their main opponents means that very few people see any point in voting. If apathy is to be tackled then the answer must surely be giving the electorate a greater choice in who they can vote for.

Moving parties North

Recent polls show there is an appetite for parties in the Irish Republic to organise in Northern Ireland with 44 per cent of people saying they would like to see parties like Fianna Fảil and Labour contest elections at some point in the future.

I am aware of the arguments that having Irish parties organising in Northern Ireland could jeopardise the stability obtained under the Good Friday Agreement. How could a party contesting elections possibly deal objectively with the Executive should it be in government in the south? But surely these onetime road blocks are more akin to pot holes in 2013 as election after election has re-elected those parties that support the devolved institutions.

There are very few people who want to take a step backwards but if this article has attempted to show anything it is that many in Northern Ireland are yearning to move forward.

Giving people a choice

If we truly value the achievement of the Good Friday Agreement then allowing a situation where half of the electorate is opting out of the political process is not a strategy for the future. There is no such thing as too much choice in a democracy, in facilitating an all island political system that allows people a genuine choice, we can in many ways make that day in 1998 when both parts of the country looked to the future all that more meaningful.

The politics of doing this isn’t easy but then again the consequences are failing to act is not much better either. We cannot afford to take a business as usual approach. New ideas and new thinking are needed if we are to break the mould of Northern Irish politics. In writing this piece I hope I can contribute in a small way to opening up this debate.

David McCann is a PhD researcher in Irish politics at the University of Ulster. To read more articles by David for click here.

Column: Though the Good Friday Agreement brought peace, we should never forget the past>

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About the author:

Dr David McCann  / Lecturer, Ulster University

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