For me, the second most interesting result from the last General Election (after Long’s defeat of Robinson, of course) was the turnout figure. 57% is a far cry from the 70% turnout at the first Assembly election. Although a turnout of 57% would be considered respectable for, say, Scottish Parliament elections, hyper-political NI can’t be judged by the same yardstick.
Apathy amongst the younger generation could explain a gradual decline towards the levels of political engagement seen elsewhere, but the sudden drop of over 7% from the previous Westminster election would seem to indicate something more worrying: that political discontent is on the increase.
Change often comes suddenly in politics. Pre-Troubles Northern Ireland was a politically stagnant place, with a single governing party and a large population of politically-inactive Nationalists. Then the outbreak of the Troubles saw NI’s very own Cambrian explosion: the birth of three of the current big five political parties, as well as the Provisional split, within an 18-month period in 1970-71. Environmental change, whether in nature or in politics, leads to new niches and new opportunities.
And environmental change might be about to come again. Not in time for the Assembly election next year, but perhaps for the one after that. Pain in the form of water charges and public-sector cuts is inevitable, but Assembly politicians have almost unanimously decided to defer that pain until after next year’s election, for fear of scaring the voters.
Delaying tactics such as this are usually the hallmark of a government clinging to the last vestiges of its power – if it does win the election through bribery it is almost always defeated at the next, after the invoice arrives.
But of course the Executive is not a normal government. Talk of a UUP/SDLP “voluntary opposition” has evaporated. The Alliance party have taken a seat at the table. Even so, if current trends continue the next Executive might struggle to represent the votes of half the total electorate, and this in the land of mandatory coalition.
There is no party poised to reap the benefits of the anti-Executive sentiment that will inevitably follow a painful austerity package. There is no political outlet (yet) to which the disillusioned can turn. The question that politicians should be asking themselves is this: how much further can electoral participation fall before something snaps?