The Assembly’s looming crisis of legitimacy

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?

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  • ForkHandles

    I voted once when i was 18. That was nearly 20 years ago. There just isnt any party that is worth voting for. None of them are actually ‘about anything’ that i can see. They aren’t conservative parties, liberal parties etc. They are all made up of a mish mash of all the normal political ideas. This is a load of nonsense. Calling a party a ‘broad church’ is just stupid if there are people in the party that have completely opposite ideas.

    im not interested in joining the ROI. i used to live there. to cut a long story short its a bit crap. The UK is better, thats where im from and thats where id prefer to stay. So thats that subject sorted out. What then have the NI parties got to interest me?

    It seems that they have no ideas on what they want to achieve with their local administration powers. They dont seem to have a vision on how they can improve peoples lives. All they seem to be able to do is be for or against something. for example in education. all the parties do is argue about being for or against academic selection. why dont they put forward a complete plan of how they see every school in NI being run after their plan has been implemented? It would include all schools that would stay open, all that would close, the money saved and how it would be spent elsewhere, the catchment areas and pupil numbers in those areas that would ensure the viability of the school, the method used to transfer pupils from primary to secondary.

    How their plan would keep high academic standards and reputations of grammar schools and at the same time improve results of pupils who are currently not achieving in secondary schools. In other words a complete plan for running a system. I would consider a party to be worth voting for if it had such detailed plans for improving my life and how NI functions in general.

    The problem is I dont think the people in NI parties have the skills and ability to do this large scale planning and management. So why vote for them?

  • Danny

    All I see is a political commentator with nothing else better to do trying to give himself a reason to exist.

    I didn’t vote in the General Election for 4 reasons, all of which are interlinked:

    1) I wasn’t going to pay £10 and waste 3 hours of my time to go to Newry to vote
    2) as it wouldn’t have made a difference as anybody who didn’t think Maggie was safe clearly didn’t think, but in any case
    3) I couldn’t much care for politicians on the whole, bunch of jackasses, and doubly so because
    4) it was the Westminister election.

    You’re basing Assembly elections on the General Election? That really is dim. For Westminister there’s 15 MP, who, apart from Naomi, were pretty much guaranteed their seats from the outset due to the horrendous FPTP. There’s most of your turnout loss right there. The Assembly has more to be returned, and PR makes it a lot more interesting – there’s a lot more opportunity for you vote to be worth something, and a lot more drama on the night as the results come in.

    Oh, and then there is of course the most obvious point – it was a pointless and irrelevant English election. It’s hopefully only a matter of time before England get their Assembly and Parliament collapses, whereas the Assembly is here to stay.

  • Anon

    The world is run by people who turn up. If you don’t turn up, don’t complain.

  • Danny

    I would happily turn up for actual votes in the Assembly. In fact, given the proliferation of the internet, get all votes to be held by the public, not these so-called representatives. They can do all their debating and drafting nonsense on BBC Parliament, then allow us to properly “turn up” via t’internet, or, for those without access, via a simple tick-box postal system.

    It won’t happen though. Politians pride themselves on their £100,000 paychecks, their better-than-thou attitude, and their gleeful aim of doing whatever it is the people don’t want.

  • Note that the turnout at the last Assembly elections in 2007 was slightly lower than the previous GE in 2005, at 62.3% and 62.9% respectively. There’s no evidence that voters treat Westminster elections as less important – in fact, Nationalist areas had a relatively high turnout this time around.

  • SeánDún

    I think everyone is reading too much into these figures. There has been a gradual shift towards local and regional politics. While the General Election is held for a UK Parliament, the people of the North have surely realised that it is the Assembly Election which really counts. The 13 MPs from the North that go to Westminster make little impact and the ‘hyper-political’ NI electorate are all too aware of this. The General Election I feel will become more and more a matter of the tribal parties trying to boost their ego. Where the real business will happen, including the DUP/TUV battle, will be at the next Assembly Election, and I doubt there will be many problems with turnout then

  • Forkhandles said:

    > There just isnt any party that is worth voting for. None of them
    > are actually ‘about anything’ that i can see.

    So get rid of the five old farts. But there is at least one exception to your assessmentt: the Green Party.

  • Glencoppagagh

    Westminster just happens to be the place the cheques come from.
    Your ‘hyper-political’ electorate are nothing of the sort; they’re simply parochial.

  • Re-engaged

    What a disappointing post and response…
    1. If you don’t feel anyone represents you either stand yourself or register a spoilt ballot, no point gurning on the sidelines
    2. NI is not hyper-political – it is hyper sensitive – wait to we hear the bickering and clap trap spoke by everyone on Tuesday with the Saville Report
    3. Without wanting to sound all TUV / Turgonish but we have a contrived political system which pleases no-body and does not work but unfortunately satisfies our politicians inability to move beyond the question of unionism v nationalism. If we had a genuine coalition (as we have in Westminster) we would be talking about the demise of the Government / Executive and the opposition rising to power – don’t think Brian Wilson and the Greens will deliver this somehow!

    Until we have a political system in NI the same as RoI / UK / RoW then we cannot get people re-engaged in politics – the Exec failure to address cuts / water charges etc… is something which would in any other elected body see a vote of no confidence as a minimum, no chance of that here though…

  • ForkHandles

    yeah, i suppose the greens are an exception.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Crisis? What Crisis?
    The Overclass does not like the Parties that real people vote for.
    Despite being told not to vote SF and DUP and to vote for the Workers Party, Conservatives, British Labour party, Green and other Parties chosen for them by the Overclass…..the electorate are still doing their own thing.

    Now we are told that “low” (relative) turnout casts a shadow of illegitimacy over it all.
    If the turn out was 10% and they all voted for the Parties chosen as the good guys….there would be nobody worrying about legitimacy.

  • PaddyReilly

    For Westminister there’s 15 MPs…….who were pretty much guaranteed their seats from the outset due to the horrendous FPTP

    There’s your answer in a nutshell. In a significant number of Westminster constituencies the outcome is pre-ordained. The Conservatives aren’t going to win Ebbw Vale; the Labour party isn’t going to take Kensington.

    I would not call FPTP horrendous for this reason: it is relatively unstressful. Most people can vote if they feel like it, or not if they’re busy elsewhere. In most constituencies the political parties can afford to take a laid-back approach. Certain key areas though require a tremendous amount of work. SF obviously worked extremely hard to retain F&ST; and Alliance to gain E Belfast.

    The world is run by people who turn up. If you don’t turn up, don’t complain.

    This is not quite the full story. There is an art to turning up when you’re needed, and not wasting your energies when you’re not. There is a whole breed of political whiners who are trying to score points on this matter. Firstly there are those who criticise MPs who don’t turn up for votes, and instead waste time at home on their constituents affairs.

    This of course is an admirable disposition of time, because there are very few divisions in which an individual’s vote is crucial, and very few debates in which any individual MP has anything meaningful to contribute.

    Secondly, there are those who argue, as is apparently being done here, that low turn-out indicates that the non-voters have radically different ideas from voters. Far from it: non-voters are actually voting yes, or yes in favour of the winning candidate, from the comfort of their armchair. Trying to argue from a low turn-out that the wrong side won is just another species of political lie.

  • I was just about to post here when I saw PaddyReilly’s comment. It’s saved me most of the typing. People turn out in elections when they believe that the result is likely to mean much to them. From what I saw of the NI campaigns in May, the parties were reduced to treating this election as some kind of loyalty poll. An unusually large number of local campaigns were foregone conclusions and this was reflected in the campaigns.

    The questions that we don’t know the answers to include the really intriguing one: Does the falling off of active support for the communal parties indicate a gap that a new – evidently post-conflict – ideological grouping(s) could step in to? And – more importantly – is there a road map for such a party/parties to emerge?

    I suspect that there *is* a gap but that there isn’t a usable roadmap.

  • kevin

    Here here i always vote as you say gurning from the sidelines is a none starter

  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit

    The story of this election was the greater fall in the Nationalist turnout – East Belfast for example had a higher turnout than West Belfast which is fairly extraordinary in recent times.

    I’m still awaiting someone with suitable rainwear(anorak) to try and analyse the differential turnout between the 2 tribes although it might require more than a hint of extrapolation.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Yes but of course the “UK” had a turnout of just 34.5% in the 2009 Euro Elections (19.5% in Slovakia…..21% in Lithuania).
    Of course we are all invited to celebrate the marvellous democracy that is Yoorp……not many journalists will be saying “crisis of legitimacy”.

    So whatever about Norn Irons alleged crisis of legitimacy it would appear to be better than the neighbours and of course the alternative before 1998 in Norn Iron was much more illegitimate than the Assembly.

    Maybe previous “legitimacy” was much better with 81% of the vote in Fermanagh South Tyrone (1959) being Unionist. Or 85% in South Down being Unionist..or 95% in South Antrim.

  • i think it will be about 55 to 60 percent turn out