Apathy or anger election?

31 January 2017 - by Quintin Oliver

This is being dubbed the snap election, when voters snapped over the Renewable Heat Incentive, when the Stormont Executive snapped under its internal tensions, and when Sinn Féin snapped over apparent DUP arrogance, creating the perfect storm of broken trust and of broken promises.

When I relayed news of the Executive’s collapse to some Syrians I’m working with, they asked: "How many died?" "None," I retorted, "they held a joint press conference." "Oh, so what happens next," they enquired. "We move to an election."

"So, what’s the problem?"

In one sense, they are right. There is no immediate problem; the rules were devised with this type of breakdown envisaged, and procedures already outlined as to the next steps, in this case taken by Secretary of State Brokenshire. The election will take place on 2 March for a reduced Assembly of 90 seats, down from the 108 MLAs before – a reduction of one for each of the 18 constituencies.

Nevertheless there is a sense of foreboding, amongst many, that Humpty may not be so easy to put back together again after what Arlene Foster fears will be a "brutal" election. Confidence and trust between the big beasts of unionism and republicanism has been shattered. Insults are being thrown; old sores are being scratched. Grievances long forgotten are being dusted down for another outing. 

But here are four reasons why they are more likely to come to a further arrangement than not:

  • Both sides need devolution – no one else understands Northern Ireland like our local politicians and no one else can really deliver for us, meaningfully;

  • Direct rule sounds attractive to some – efficiency, certainty, coherence… but would a gaggle of Conservative direct rule ministers from Lancashire or Lincoln really deliver for local needs, inevitably through the same civil servants accused of some of the RHI mistakes?

  • Austerity, cuts, welfare reform, hard Brexit... all loom ominously; given the foundations of consent in the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, and current British relations with the government of Ireland, there is no chance of joint authority. It’s devolution or nothing;

  • Voters are crying out for change – and political parties will hear that loud and clear on the doorstep.

Or will they? That is the conundrum – will apathy and disillusionment trump anger and passion over the next five weeks of campaigning?

Some fear that turnout could fall below 50 per cent, indicating real disaffection with our political class across the board. On the other hand, we at Stratagem are predicting an upturn in participation, fuelled by anger and annoyance, but with a forward-looking purpose. Small, single issue parties could do well, and the larger ones may find that the crude call for ‘us versus them’ may cut no ice.

After the terrible year of referendums in 2016, this poll represents a fresh chance to vote for the future, to vote for hope and to create fresh change for everyone.

This article was first published for Public Affairs Networking on 26 January 2017.