It was recently pointed out by Newton Emerson on The View that young people don’t vote and, when they do, they follow their parents’ lead. A necessary generalisation, of course, but it identifies one of a number of reasons why people in Northern Ireland will regularly malign their representation on The Hill but still return the same parties time and again. This is especially true in cases of a tactical vote against a particular party or when strength of feeling on the Union/ United Ireland overrides serious accountability on everyday issues.
In 2016 those behind campaigns such as marriage equality, the abortion debate, public sector cuts and better cycling provision have made direct appeals to voters to put their concerns at the forefront of their mind in the voting booth as opposed to allowing the agenda to be framed by those on their doorstep. In some cases, impressive use of social media and data have been used to put existing MLAs very starkly in the spotlight, stripped bare of their party backing and glossy election materials.
Meanwhile high profile campaigns such as Save The Sunflower, Stop The Drill and Hospitality Ulster’s work on licensing hours will have some wondering if their party of choice was anywhere to be seen when a real issue of very local concern arose close to home. And the DUP has been singled out by @yesequality2016 campaigners raising voter awareness of how Petitions of Concern are used against marriage equality in Northern Ireland.
This year, particularly impressive have been great efforts by pro-choice members of Belfast Feminist Network as well as NI Greenways – and there will be other examples – to use social media and clearly-presented data to arm those so-inclined to take their arguments about individual issues directly to the candidate on their door.
The Belfast Feminist Network members have produced, and distributed, a list of every MLA candidate and their detailed position on abortion.
Meanwhile, Greenways NI (supported by Cycling UK and Sustrans NI) has been using social media to release some beautifully-presented data, complete with ongoing updates and individual candidate comments as well as totals by party, showing how individual MLAs have replied to an approach from no less than campaign backer Jon Snow about promotion of cycling infrastructure in Northern Ireland. Greenways NI also use Twitter to excellent effect at @nigreenways.
From a personal point of view, there’s a very clear pattern of parties and candidates who show up for the ground-level issues that matter to me and this will be among the factors at the forefront of my mind on election day. Great efforts are being made in 2016 by a number of groups to try to encourage as many people as possible to do likewise.
It is one thing to constantly berate and belittle our MLAs and parties on The Nolan Show, it is another for voters to think twice about who we put there – and on what agenda – in the first place.
I’ve enjoyed seeing the efforts of the likes of Belfast Feminist Network members and NI Greenways to try to make the tail start to wag the dog in Northern Ireland by encouraging voting based less on party loyalty and more on the views and performance of the candidate on the doorstep.
Long may it continue.
*Images from @yesequality2016 and Election Cycle 2016 used with permission.