Belfast City Hall saw a different protest from normal last Saturday, with its organisers claiming that 20, 000 had demonstrated in favour of allowing same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. Buoyed by the successes of their Southern counterparts in last month’s referendum, local LGBT rights campaigners are left feeling aggrieved that Northern Ireland is now almost the only place in the British Isles where gay marriage isn’t legal. Not that they haven’t tried to achieve it before, it has come before the Stormont Assembly no fewer than 4 times (the most recent in April) only to be struck-down, partly by a DUP-led petition of concern.
LGBT campaigners in Northern Ireland were celebrating last month however, but because of a ruling from the courts (the Ashers bakery case), rather than the Assembly. They aren’t the only ones seeking redress in the court-rooms. This week a woman has been having her case heard against Northern Ireland’s abortion laws at Belfast High Court, after proposed change at the Assembly was last month declared to be “doomed” by the First Minister.
Whether or not Northern Ireland’s position on these and similar issues make it a bulwark or a backwater may be a matter of moral preference, but there seems little doubt that change via Stormont is proving increasingly difficult. One only has to look at the current impasse over Welfare reform to see that.
Traditionally those seen as being dissatisfied with the post-Good Friday Agreement architecture were hard-line unionists, who felt abandoned or betrayed (cue the moniker ‘Loyalists Against Democracy’) by the face and pace of change. Now dissatisfaction with how the institutions function seems to be widespread, sending campaigners onto the streets and into the court-rooms but less and less to the ballot-box.
Northern Ireland used to have a comparatively high electoral turnout rate, but in this year’s general election it was below 60%, by contrast Scotland’s was over 70%. Each successive Assembly election gas seen a drop in numbers voting, particularly among the young. If current trends continue turnout in next year’s Stormont election could fall below 50%, down from over 70% since 1999.
The contrast over the borders and waters is vast. Last month’s marriage referendum in the Republic of Ireland showed massive levels of voter participation, more people voted in that referendum than any other in the state’s history. While in Scotland’s referendum last year, turnout was almost 85% of the population, including those aged 16 and 17. What struck foreign-based observers like myself was how many young Irish people, members of ‘generation immigration’ , made the journey from foreign lands to Dublin airport to cast their ballots. I counted no fewer than a dozen close friends telling social media they were going #hometovote. If I were to count similar labels for the general election in Northern Ireland earlier that month, I could do so with one hand (while pointing).
Many returning voters may never return to Ireland full-time but they wanted to make a profound statement about the place they identify with, somewhere they still saw as home. Meanwhile all Northern Ireland’s postal votes and Easyjet flights to Aldergrove couldn’t make Northern Ireland’s returning or persisting young people lift turnout rates on May 5th above 58%
It’s a far-cry from May 1998 in the Good Friday referendum, when more than 8 out of 10 people cast their ballot, many for the first time. The night before the vote U2 appeared on stage at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall, flanked by David Trimble and John Hume. Among those invited were sixth-form students from my school, who now in their mid to late 30s, are statistically just as likely to stay at home come polling day. Statistics show that at the last Assembly election barely over half of those aged 18-45 felt the need to vote.
It seems as if frustration at a supposedly all-inclusive democratic process is evident. I’m not sure if Bono is planning on returning to the Waterfront anytime soon, will those whom he inspired return to the ballot box?