“Phony pollster posters prompt palaver” #ImagineBelfast

It’s hard to beat the alliterative Irish News headline that accompanied their Wednesday morning article about the recent rogue poster campaign across Belfast.

Imagine! Belfast Festival of Ideas and Politics admitted on Friday that it was behind the poster campaign which provoked widespread reaction – mostly positive, some negative – and disappointingly little accurate speculation about its source. Led By Donkeys took some of the blame, Dylan Quinn’s We Deserve Better campaign, along with comedian Shane Todd and many pointing fingers at the Alliance Party.

The posters went up on Sunday night, on the eve of the week-long Imagine! Festival. The organisers explain that “no public or sponsorship funds were used in this campaign and it only cost £300”. The spoof posters will be coming down this weekend: likely to be auctioned off or sold online for charity, though I bet one or two will end up on bonfires in July!

Festival Director Peter O’Neill has blogged about the background to the campaign.

Imagine! is now in its fifth year of bringing people from all walks of life together to talk about (mostly) small ‘p’ politics. It’s clearly not our business to tell people what to think or how to think it, but we do like to believe that we’ve been reasonably successful in facilitating discussion and debate, and encouraging new thinking about the issues that affect everyone in a huge way. So, with that in mind, what was this poster malarkey all about…?

Essentially, the whole point of our election poster campaign was to stimulate even more discussion – this time in public. We’d envisaged that they’d encourage debate on subjects like:

  • How do we all feel about local politicians and the job they do? Especially when there’s been no functioning government here for over two years.
  • Is it reasonable to tar all politicians with the same brush?
  • What kinds of people become politicians and what are their motivations?
  • At election time, do people actually pay attention to political advertising?
  • If you always vote for ‘your side’, are you asking enough about candidates before you give them your vote? What do you actually know about them and their ability to represent your interests?

This last point was perhaps the most important: in a post-conflict society like Northern Ireland, we thought it would be interesting to ask people to examine what kind of political culture develops over time when many voters have been simply voting for ‘their side’ for decades. What consequences does this have for our ability as a nation to govern ourselves effectively and fairly?

It’s been interesting to see where people have gone with this across the various social platforms and how they interpreted the messages on the set of posters. Generally, reactions ranged from comments suggesting that the campaign was simply encouraging people to examine their chosen candidate a little harder before casting their vote, right through to guesses at which dark forces were behind these obviously Machiavellian voter suppression tactics.

Some people naively branded the poster campaign as “negative” and promoting “voter apathy”. To me, those accusations belittle the intelligence of the electorate.

It’s clear that not every politician is a ‘chancer’ or an ‘opportunist’. But a minority are, and they often continue to attract support and get re-elected.

The posters – particularly when the small print is seen up close – contain provocative and, yes, deeply cynical suggestions. “Don’t Think, Just Vote” is pretty arrogant advice. Yet many candidates would love you to follow that instruction.

Don’t we sometimes get sucked into the narratives of fear and difference voiced by political candidates and parties? Don’t we sometimes excuse their lack of civility, lack of delivery, and lack of a functioning Executive and Assembly? Don’t we allow them to take our votes for granted?

Perhaps the reverse psychology can stir us into engaging our brains and being more intentional when it comes to filling out ballot papers?

Who hasn’t silently critiqued a politician, their statements, their (in)actions and their election literature. Yet we have the thought and move on, doing nothing about it. Reading our thoughts expressed on a poster – hearing them said by someone else – might stop us meekly voting or not voting as we have been doing so for years and maybe even decades.

Satire uses humour and exaggeration to ridicule and criticise. This well-executed act of agitprop (politicised art) should make us stand back and consider what we’re hearing and thinking.

Even the gender of the posters – each uses the same stock image with the tie and rosette recoloured – was a reminder that candidates standing and elected still tend to be overwhelmingly male.

With local government elections coming up in May – the shortening odds of having a European and General Elections this year too – and the consequences of 2016 EU Referendum rarely out of the news headlines, maybe the message of the posters is just cynical enough to cajole a few of us into voting by following our own intentions and aspirations rather than someone else’s stale dogma?

Imagine! Belfast continues until Sunday 31 March with its programme of events to stir, startle, entertain and challenge.