In an earlier post I cited the latest Lucid Talk poll which showed Stormont’s approval rating at an abysmal 9%.
This low approval rating while perhaps overstated does mirror a sense of disillusionment among the wider general public about the direction that we are heading under this current assembly. We have falling turnout at elections, gridlock in Stormont and a stagnant economy. When you consider all this it is little wonder that we have an apathetic electorate. However, I would like to just pose the question; if we are so dissatisfied with our current crop of politicians, what are we actually doing about it?
We all know the current problems with the system in Stormont. There exists a mandatory coalition that makes it nearly impossible to toss a party out of the executive. Everybody seems to agree that this is not an ideal situation, yet as a wider society, we don’t seem to be putting any real political pressure on our politicians to change the system. We seem to have lost sight of the fact that the composition of our assembly is something that we can change. Yes it does require approval from the Secretary of State, but she has said repeatedly she will do it when a request is made.
As the general public, if we genuinely want to create a system that allows for an official opposition, then it will only come from pressure we put on politicians ourselves. Every time they go on a current affairs programme, people should be tweeting, emailing and calling in to make this an issue.
Then we have our general engagement with the political process. Our democracy in not perfect, nor was it something that came naturally to this province. It took many years of protest, negotiation and compromise to get the free and fair electoral system we all enjoy today. Yet when it comes to Election Day, a sizeable and ever growing minority (45.3% in 2011) sit on their hands and don’t bother voting.
We need to change the conversation about voter apathy. It should not be a badge of honour to say ‘I didn’t vote.’ Rather we should create an environment which declares that those who are not voting are just rewarding the very system that annoys them in the first place. The Electoral Commission should bolt the slogan ‘don’t give out about bad politicians, vote them out and keep them out’ across every advert they send out during election time.
It is important for all of us to remember that the men and women who serve up on the hill do so because enough of us voted for them. The only way anything can change is if we either put pressure on our MLA’s or we change the politicians who are making the decisions. It’s no use giving off about politicians for an entire assembly term and then marching down to the polling station and simply returning the status quo. If the current polls are to be believed that is exactly what we would do as the running order of the parties has remained largely unchanged.
At the end of the day this is our government. There is so much in this world that we cannot control. However, how we are governed, who governs us and for how long, are all decided by us.
Here is the attitude we need to take. If you don’t like the parties on offer, start a new one. If you don’t think an MLA is paying enough attention to an issue you care about, then ring up their office and if that doesn’t work, then use your most basic right and vote them out at the next election.
Stormont’s approval ratings are low but these polls will not count for much if the general public don’t start making a much more concerted effort to change the way politics is done in Northern Ireland. We can do better than what we have at the moment but it is up to us to make it happen.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs