Although it is sadly missing from our archives (due to a nasty accident on the server of a previous UK-based host) our first on-the-ground foray was the November Assembly Election in 2003. It was an awesome experience. Not least because of the way activists and voters turned out in such huge numbers. But it seems apathy is a growing factor here as elsewhere in the UK. American Student Patrick Lane says it’s an element that Unionist politicians (whose base has always suffered much more from apathy than nationalism) should forge a strategy to use it to their advantage…By Patrick Lane
Forget the armalite, try apathy
A recent BBC report notes that apathy, unlike home prices, is on the rise and has been for some time across the UK. This trend proves especially true in NI:
“Sixty years ago, three quarters of those entitled to vote in Northern Ireland exercised their right. By 2005, the number staying at home had risen to more than a third
Explanation for the growth takes several factors into account; with the end of the Troubles and, until recently, an improved economy, the emigration flow has slowed considerably with evidence that the “brain drain” of young professionals drifting overseas has been stemmed. In Northern Ireland over the past five years, there has been a huge influx of foreign nationals, particularly from eastern Europe.
In terms of age profile, Northern Ireland comes second in the UK with an average age of 36.8 compared with 42.6 in Cornwall and 41.7 in Scotland. At opposite ends of the spectrum, 6.4% of the NI population is under five, with 16% of pensionable age or over.”
While indifference has apparently permeated NI society, these apathetic people amazingly still find the time and the motivation to answer surveys.
As the social thermometer of NI, the 2007 Life and Times Survey reports, voter disregard for the political system varies little by religion, and therefore may indeed vary little by personal preference of the constitutional status of NI. So with an equal amount on both sides of the political spectrum indifferent to politics, what about utilizing the apathy of the electorate as a political tool?
For instance the DUP could propose an Irish Language Act to appease a segment of the nationalist populace, hopefully lulling a further percentage of nationalists into the ranks of the apathetic. Through the appeasement of several nationalist demands (i.e. ILA, P & J), the unionist parties could take the proverbial wind out the sails of Sinn Fein, further removing any pragmatic benefit of a shift in the constitutional status of NI. Of course one could argue that this strategy of appeasement leading to apathy will backfire on the unionist parties, which it very well might, but one could also argue that this strategy is currently in effect, albeit implicit, slow, and with conditions.
Apathy exists as a far greater threat to nationalism than unionism, as a small, but sizeable number of Catholics prefers the union to a UI. Since demographics and political realities favor unionism, nationalism must offer something beyond an ideology to convince those garden center Protestants and disaffected Catholics that a UI will be in their best interests. Nationalists must act to stem the tide of apathy within the ranks of their traditional supporters, while hoping that those of a unionist background grow apathetic not only to NI politics, but also to the border.
If this trend continues perhaps NIs major political parties will broaden their appeals to a greater portion of the populace, no longer catering to one half of the political divide, which of course relies upon Sinn Fein and the DUP undergoing a public relations transformation. I could just be a hopeful American who voted for Obama, but apathy might just change the nature of NI politics.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty