Leaflets through the letterbox. Party political broadcasts on the television. Posters on lampposts. Smiling canvassers braving the temperamental weather. It can only be one thing: it must be election season in Northern Ireland.
Yes, come the 5th May the electorate of Northern Ireland shall take to the polling stations, ready to submit their vote in the standard black ballot box. For some, it shall simply be a case of ‘same old, same old’ whereby they will vote according to the traditional dividing lines of tribal politics. For others, it marks the opportunity to vote for change, to vote for something new – perhaps opting for the periphery parties, who reside outside of the main five in the Northern Irish political scene.
For myself, this is rather the exciting moment. The 5th May will mark a red-letter day for me, in that it shall be my first time voting in the Assembly elections. (The Westminster General Election in May 2015 was my very first time voting, full stop.) I finally have the opportunity to have my say in electing my local representatives to Stormont, after years of waiting and watching my family members to to the local polling stations. The political aficionado that I am, you may rest assured that I am eagerly following any and all election coverage available.
When I was younger, my primary school would close for the day of the election. I can recall accompanying my parents to our polling station, and watch as they dropped their ballot slip into the black box. It seemed strange to young me that these pieces of paper could dictate who would enter government. I used to think that to count the votes, and announce who had won must be the most exciting job available. I also used to look upon the candidates, resplendent with their party rosettes as they stood outside the polling stations, attempting to garner a few last-minute changes of heart and gain additional votes. I remember staring at the candidates, and feeling sad because they all looked so eager, yet nervous, and I knew that not all would elected. (I was evidently a sensitive soul.)
Whilst I have aged, and adopted a more cynical world-view over the years since, I still do think that to be the local election officer is a important job. When I was in secondary school, following both the Assembly and Westminster elections, I tried researching the possibility of volunteering to count votes! Also over the years, I realised how fortunate I am to have the right to vote, and thus how important it is to utilise my right to vote. Moreover, as my interest in politics grew over time, I began to realise how intriguing it is, and how politics shapes our society. Consequently, I am fascinated by policy and decision-making.
Election time in Northern Ireland is a curious affair in comparison to the other devolved legislatures (which incidentally enough, also head to the polls on the 5th May, as I will discuss in a later blog post). This seemingly stems from the practice of politics here in general, along with the roles historical context and differing narratives play. Politics here is not as straightforward as the other UK regions. It runs deep; it can be the bedrock of communities, and will often be hotly debated in bars and cafés and buses. I often feel as though we are born with an instinctive understanding of tribal politics in Northern Ireland. Some of my earliest memories include coming to the realisation that you could distinguish one community from another by looking out for the particular flag being flown from a lamppost, or what colour the kerbstones were painted.
I mentioned previously the timeless practice of tribal politics – given the tumultuous history of The Troubles, Northern Ireland politics has roots in a ‘us versus them’ mentality. The general rule of thumb for generations was simple: if you were Catholic, you voted for a Nationalist party, such as the SDLP, or Sinn Féin; if you were Protestant, you voted Unionist for the Ulster Unionist Party, or the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). You either supported Northern Ireland remaining within the UK, or you desired to see a unified Ireland. You sympathised, perhaps even supported the use of violence – the armed struggle – by paramilitaries, or you simply wished to see stability in government and society. Regardless, community divide was evident, with each side wary of the other. Now, the Good Friday Agreement, the Peace Process and the passage of time have assisted in overcoming this divide, and bringing communities closer. But the ancient fear and dislike which can be triggered by the ‘us versus them’ mentality is still lingering. And this tends to be capitalised upon by political parties during election season.
For example, the message of the DUP in relation to the roles of First Minister, and Deputy First Minister during the campaign relies on tapping into the old Unionist fear of Republicanism. Arlene Foster, the leader of the party and who occupies the post of First Minister, has opted to argue that there is a fear Sinn Féin could become the largest party at Stormont, and thus have Martin McGuinness nominated for First Minister. The party therefore is asking the electorate to consider both Ms Foster and Mr McGuinness, and to ask themselves who they would prefer to see in the position of First Minister.
Historically, Unionist parties have always been the largest party, and have always occupied the post of First Minister. The second largest party, traditionally a Nationalist one, will have their leader nominated for the post of Deputy First Minister. Whilst there is no legal difference between the two posts in terms of powers and responsibilities, there is symbolism at play. And what you need to understand is that in Northern Ireland, symbolism is extremely important. To have the first Nationalist First Minister would symbolise the end of dominant Unionist – and generally Protestant – rule in Northern Ireland. Unionists are thus being encouraged to fear their identity would be under attack should this be the case – note that Northern Ireland was established through the deliberate selection of Northern Irish counties which had a Protestant majority. Given that Martin McGuinness has called for a referendum to be held on Irish unification in the aftermath of this summer’s EU referendum, you can see how the DUP could be concerned about the future of Northern Ireland. This concern has been present for a while, and may not necessarily be ill-founded as past Assembly elections illustrate that Sinn Féin are slowly but surely gaining votes overall. The irony is that for all the calls to arms issued by the DUP against Sinn Féin, the Executive works on the basis of power-sharing. Depending on their proportion of received votes, multiple political parties may receive a Ministerial portfolio. In recent years, the DUP and Sinn Féin have held the majority of portfolios between them, due to being the largest Unionist and Nationalist parties respectively.
However, staunch tribal politics is not as strong as it used to be. You see, the generational gap is growing, and young people are utterly exasperated at the status quo. Young people feel that Stormont is trapped in stalemate politics, lacking in functionality and efficiency. We feel alienated by the ‘us and them’ discourse, and feel that Northern Ireland is preoccupied with the past to the detriment of the future. We desire change, desire to see Northern Ireland become the country it has such potential to be. We are worried about employment opportunities, and the threat of increased tuition fees. Moreover, we are not impressed with the politicisation of every issue and every Department within the Executive. The young generation will have its say come the 5th May, and throw into the mix the periphery parties, including The Greens, and we have a different ballgame entirely.
It should be noted too that Members of the Assembly (MLAs) are elected according to a system of proportional representation called Single Transferable Vote, or STV. Under STV, candidates are elected according to the share of vote they receive, the size of the electorate, and the number of seats to be filled. Voters may rank candidates in order of preference, giving each a number, and they can choose as many or as few as they like. For each constituency a ‘quota’ must be determined which establishes the minimum number of votes a candidate requires to be elected. This means that each constituency tends to see a variety of candidates elected to post, and thus ensures a more representative and reflective Assembly. It also means that parties will carefully scrutinise each constituency to calculate their chances, and will seek to utilise preference votes. This is not a simple case of first past the post like the Westminster elections, oh no. This is more complex, more intriguing, and has sometimes resulted in House of Cards-esque actions to ensure victory. For example, everyone knows at least one story regarding a Lazarus, whereby people seemingly rise from the dead to vote. This year, we have accusations from the ex-DUP party member Ruth Patterson, who argued that the use of rival DUP candidate Emma Pengelly’s maiden name on posters so they read ‘Emma Little Pengelly’ was deliberately done to ensure her name is bigger, and easier to see. It is worth noting there is no love lost on behalf of Ms Patterson: she was expelled from the DUP after using media to air her complaints over Ms Pengelly’s co-opting into the South Belfast seat vacated by previous occupant Jimmy Spratt.
Nominations for the NI Assembly elections closed on Tuesday 12th April, with 276 candidates contesting 108 seats. The most competitive, and therefore battleground areas are North Belfast, East Belfast, South Belfast, and West Tyrone with each having 18 candidates contesting six seats. On the other side of the spectrum, the least competitive constituencies are Mid Ulster, South Down and West Belfast, with each having 12 candidates contesting six seats. My own constituency is South Antrim, traditionally a Unionist stronghold with a minority Nationalist presence.
From now until the 5th May, campaigning shall truly be underway in Northern Ireland. It remains to be seen whether change really will come about; something which our politicians have not achieved despite the infamous Haass talks and the equally-infamous Fresh Start Agreement. There is the potential for interesting upsets in certain constituencies, which could result in a change in the political landscape at Stormont. As for myself, I will be keeping an eye on the general campaign, and will relish the chance to finally place my faith in my chosen candidates, and submit my ballot slip. I am a strong proponent of devolution: Northern Ireland did not endure years of violence and instability to ever return to the days of Direct Rule. So for all that I may complain about Stormont’s performance in the past mandate, or even during the mandate yet to come, I will always feel some measure of pride that we have the Assembly and Executive, and it was the people of Northern Ireland who elected the MLAs.