Assembly Election 2022: The People vs Apathy

The gold medal for the Northern Ireland Assembly elections canvassing tweet goes to Elaine Crory:

It’s hard not to give yourself over to nihilism this election. Living in the long tail of a pandemic, surrounded by international wars, the climate tipping point passed, social survival feeling so fragile, waiting for the economic system to collapse at any moment.

And yet, this co-exists with the instinct to wallpaper. To book a holiday, schedule a dentist appointment, plant bulbs for next year’s garden. Because it is a deeply human act to root for our own survival.

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I love elections. I have never not voted. Across Co. Down and in Belfast, by post and in queues, in hope and in anger. I have carefully planned my preferences, getting right down to boking point and often a little further. I have stayed up for each and every election count, simultaneously ingesting five streams of media while doing transfer guesstimates on the back on an envelope.

This will be my kids’ eleventh election. They have never not voted with me. In nappies, pyjamas and school uniforms. Electoral workers have smiled at them in pity as I explain how to calculate 6pm turnout from 12 noon tallies. It’s hard to say what the kids take from this. Other than that using your vote is non-negotiable. 

So, it’s in this context, that I confess that this time, I was beginning to develop a form of pre-election malaise. The leaflets stacked up unread on the kitchen bench. I turned the radio off. It was the first time this had happened.

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Thinking about it, the malaise is quite logical. A lot of people I talk to are identifying a general ‘meh’. They’re asking, ‘what am I even voting for?’ ‘Will the Assembly come back?’ ‘Does this place have a hope of ever being functional?’ ‘Why should I bother?’ I ask myself these questions every day too.

Our power-sharing Agreement, while I thank it for its service in hauling us out of violent conflict, means that if the largest unionist or nationalist party refuses to govern, we have no government. 

The DUP sounds like it would not like to govern if Sinn Féin gets more seats than them, and if the Northern Ireland Protocol – the logical extension of their own Brexit policies – is not binned. Opposition to the Protocol is not the majority position across Northern Ireland. If Sinn Féin gets most seats, that is democracy. The DUP is finding its positions difficult to sell.

If the largest unionist party do not wish to participate in government after this election, new legislation means that we may argue amongst ourselves for up to six months, pots of money sitting unallocated, caretaker Ministers with hands tied, until we just have to vote all over again.

If a fresh election does not generate new ideas, then we default to direct rule from London. Handing the reins to a Tory government with a huge majority, cloying in a thick syrup of their own entitlement. With a post-truth approach to politics. Feeling pity, disdain or complete lack of interest in us, their culchie cousins.

It’s a thin form of democracy.

Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland Protocol – which actually taps into a deeply emotive identity issue for unionists – is asked to perform impossible gymnastics. Rather than working our way through the genuine issues, an increasingly frustrated group of people threaten political apocalypse, demanding purification from an ever dwindling Protestant people, placing a noose around more relaxed ways of thinking.

The irony is that the TUV and co. are correct in identifying a democratic deficit here. The decision makers in the Protocol wars are the British government and the EU. People in Northern Ireland have little influence. But the TUV and co.’s solution – to collapse Stormont and hand the reins to the Tories – has never worked before and shows no sign of working in the future.

This is underlined by the P&O episode. Where an internationally-owned, private ferry company, providing a key supply line into the north, is barely governable by UK law. Local workers remain sacked, routes remain tenuous and disrupted. Yet I see few rallies protesting the privatisation of supply lines across the sea border.

And underneath all of this, we all know people who have not filled their oil tank. Who have stopped paying gas bills. A friend of mine rations lightbulb use, one room at a time. The idea of getting a NHS appointment in time to fix your problem in time seems fantastical. There is constant chat about rising prices and the rationing of food. And none of this is sustainable.

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In the end, my malaise was cured by hauling my tired bones out the door to pitch in with my Green Party friends’ campaigns. Other good parties are available. Walking towards human connection, listening to people’s apathy and pain, sharing in it. Watching my friends bust a gut, because they believe they can do better, has been galvanising. 

There are people we can vote for who refuse to accept our brokenness as a given. These people are the antidote to despair. I thank all of their bad-asses for never giving up.

With a little fire in my belly now, I begin to look at the possible election outcomes in new ways. If Sinn Féin takes most seats, and the DUP the second most, the DUP currently seems unlikely to appoint a Deputy First Minister. I do not welcome the stasis a boycott will bring, but it is a plaster that unionism needs to rip off. The world will not end. It is exciting for nationalists and republicans who have not yet been in this position. And, in one way or another, things will not be the same. 

If the Executive does not return, some renegotiation of the Agreement may be required. Perhaps this will lead to the Others, a third designation, being meaningfully counted as a player in power-sharing, preventing single identity government while loosening the power of boycott. This seems like a welcome possibility. 

Perhaps a savvy electorate will deliver a result that we cannot yet imagine. A euphoric UUP. A seismic swing to Alliance and the other Others. A tie between Sinn Féin and the DUP. A successful TUV that is so bereft of practical policy that it dissolves in its own incapacity to change the things it is angry about. I may have to wait a little longer for my eco-socialist people’s republic. But any of these outcomes would lead to interesting change.

Maybe the point of this election is not to simply restore a dysfunctional Assembly. But to deal a new deck from which we could build something meaningfully better.

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There are things we can change and things we cannot. 

The Assembly cannot change the detail of the Protocol.

The Assembly cannot control privatised global shipping companies.

The Assembly cannot raise tax or set wider fiscal policy, and we will need to come back to this.

The Assembly cannot change the Russian threat to obliterate Ireland by a nuclear submarine drone en route to Britain. 

We are a tiny post-conflict democracy, doing our best to keep our heads above water.

But voting is an intentional act of hope. It defies apathy. It is not pointless.

Because the Assembly does have the ability to tune in to people’s needs locally. We saw this during the COVID-19 pandemic. An Executive can set budgets. Create a programme for government. Allocate funds to help with the cost of living and budget for longer-term climate adaptations to homes. In the past, we have seen the Executive mitigate the worst of the UK’s welfare cuts. A lot of good legislation was passed in the last mandate. The Assembly is a diverse, cranky, gritty and sometimes generous place, reflective of where we live. We have more access to it than any other political institution.

And, as Kellie Turtle outlines in this PR-STV explainer, we have a voting system that allows us to register our dissent. By voting for the underdogs. Voting with our hearts. By transferring to our second and third favourite candidates, who may get elected if our underdogs do not. And by voting wildly down the ballot, until the boke rises up in our throat, to candidates who we think would be less bad than the worst.

Democracy, throughout the modern world, is delicate, dysfunctional, and always in danger of being taken away from us. In Northern Ireland, it is nothing short of miraculous. We are discovering that the things we thought had been won, are things we must continue to fight for every day.

So, I will bring my kids into the polling station on Thursday after school, and enthusiastically explain once again how much voting matters. Maybe I’ll have a think about doing up the hallway.

May 5th 2022. 

The People vs Apathy.

A chance to deal a new deck of cards.

 

Illustration by Belfast artist, James Ashe  – jamesashestudio.com

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