Where are Bono’s voters now?

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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?

  • Kevin Breslin

    I’d think most people would think Paul Hewson probably sees himself more of an evangelist than a statesman or politician. Kind of the Reverse Eamonn McCann in some ways.

  • Sergiogiorgio

    Oh for the days of Hume and, even ,Trimble, at a push. Not too many Nobel winners on the Hill now. Not unless they invent a “useless tw*ts” category. God save us from the DUP gurning should Bon’er show up……Robbo and Marty hands aloft rocking it to Sunday, Bloody Sunday…

    Maybe not….

  • WindowLean

    Out of Control might be more appropriate!

  • Sergiogiorgio

    Iris – Songs of Innocence 2014 !!

  • Newman

    The vote in the Assembly was not dependent on the petition of concern..accuracy please.

  • the rich get richer

    Bono’ Most Inspiring Work is his tax Avoidance Work.

    He is Inspired by big Business And an Inspiration to it.

  • Paul Hagan

    Yes, it’s correct to say that it was not the last time defeated solely on the petition of concern but it was clear that it was going to be used regardless, making the numbers less than crucial. It was therefore partly dependent on it

  • whatif1984true

    People look at photos/Tv when a celebrity is involved, so they can garner publicity for a cause. The annoyance is when the celebrity believes that their opinion is better than that of others and that their opinion is more important because of who they are (a celebrity).
    Statisticians can confirm that singing in key or having large breasts do not necessarily correlate with sound economic judgement.
    Believing your own publicity is the downfall of many. it also extends to the camp followers who also believe in the publicity despite very striking examples of matters which prove the opposite is true. Thinking for yourself is put in the ‘too hard’ box by too many.

  • Richard Gadsden

    Northern Ireland is now the only place in the British Isles where gay marriage isn’t legal

    The Isle of Man is still in the British Isles, and isn’t there yet, though they’re clearly trying.


    If you count the Channel Islands, then both Jersey and Guernsey are working on their SSM legislation.

  • Reader

    Are you suggesting the vote would have been different if there hadn’t been the prospect of a PoC? And if so, which specific MLAs would have behaved differently?

  • Wicklow Weather

    Another ill informed Bono knocker who reads the red toppers and has not bothered to educate themselves on U2’s tax affairs, not that its interesting but at least get the facts before throwing out such stupid comments. Why not mention the bands amazing ongoing work and their financial support for Music Generation across Ireland. Sure ye probably didnt even know that project existed and that the band has contributed millions towards it. Sure who would have guessed!

  • Paul Hagan

    I don’t like to argue counterfactuals but I think if there was no PoC a lot of things in the Assembly would be different

  • Paul Hagan

    OK, my mistake, thanks for clearing that up

  • Reader

    Well, you started with the counterfactuals. The facts on this vote are that most MLAs voted with their party line and a very few voted or ran away according to conscience. The most difference I can envisage is that without the prospect of a PoC, some of the absent SDLP MLAs might have either followed the party line or made a personal stand, but I don’t think that could have changed the result.

  • the rich get richer

    I hope what you say is correct but I am commenting on my own impressions of Bono and U2.

    I don’t Research every Tom Dick or Bono in the Public eye. Why would I ?

    Bono isn’t exactly the Kind of fella to Hide his light under a Bushell.

  • whatif1984true

    U2 now pay less tax in Ireland due to their changed tax arrangements. U2 gift money for Government project. Swings and roundabouts not likely it is balanced give and take.
    Not news I am interested in.