A recent poll demonstrated the depth of apathy towards and disillusionment with the political process in Northern Ireland.
Of those questioned 44 per cent said they would not vote if Assembly elections were held tomorrow. Amongst 18-24 year-olds this rises to 52 per cent.
Even more concerning is the overall approval rate for the Assembly – standing at -66 per cent compared to the performance of governance under Direct Rule. That figure is significantly lower than that for the Greek government which is in complete meltdown. A more appropriate comparison is with the Scottish Parliament which has a rating of -12 per cent.
At first sight this appears remarkable in such a volatile area where politicians are warning of crisis and the debate amongst them appears to be getting more heated by the day. You might have thought that this would spark a greater interest in politics and that support for the major parties and their stances on the big issues of the day would be growing.
Yet drill down a little and the clues start to emerge. Only a small minority of Catholics want to see a united Ireland any time soon, and, on the other side of the fence, a huge majority of all of us want to see the issue of marches dealt with by negotiation and oppose illegal parades.
So what is really going on here, what can be done about it and how should our parties respond?
There is always much talk about how we have become trapped in the past and that progress towards a shared future is being hampered by a collective failure to deal with it: the current crisis over the proposed peace centre at the Maze is a good example of this.
Yet there is also a strong sense that politicians and the media have allowed themselves to become trapped in this and that issues which mean the most to the vast majority of us don’t get enough attention: jobs, education, decent housing, economic growth, the cost of living, health provision. There is important work going on in all these areas but it tends not to get noticed because the rows elsewhere make for better headlines.
In other countries political parties spend a fortune looking into what concerns voters most and then setting out to address those concerns. That’s why all the British political conferences have concentrated on the number one concern for voters at present: the spiralling cost of living.
It is early days as yet but there’s little evidence that the major parties here are starting to really get to grips with last month’s poll and use it as a means of recalibrating their own policies.
Disillusionment with politics is not confined to Northern Ireland, it is a world-wide problem. In many countries it arises because there are no longer strong left-right differences precisely because parties are listening more closely to voters’ needs and adjusting accordingly, so in policy terms there are no longer the choices that there used to be.
And this is where the second big problem for politicians arises: you don’t secure big headlines through agreeing with others all the time: so you smear your opponents and use spin doctors to undermine their integrity and credibility.
All very well and good, except that opinion polls suggest that the public hates this. They are bored with red-faced politicians screaming at each other in TV studios and with all of the cheap shots that characterise political “debate”.
They want to see greater integrity and honesty amongst politicians. They like it when people apologise for their mistakes, and would prefer for politicians to be paid according to their performance, like so many others in the workplace.
Unfortunately in Northern Ireland we have both problems, which is probably why our politicians score so badly. Too much debate is on issues which are not the burning priority for the majority of citizens. Too much of the debate is too confrontational. Yes it can be entertaining but it also turns voters off, and finally there is not enough evidence that politicians themselves are listening and re-tuning their strategies to address voters’ main concerns.
The reality is that despite public perception politicians in Northern Ireland have made significant progress. It was never going to be easy, and much of the criticism is unfair and misplaced. On the whole members of different parties do work constructively together for the benefit of wider society and there is a shared determination to build prosperity.
There has been much talk of late about a “political crisis” at the heart of government. And who can deny that Sinn Fein and the DUP have reached an impasse over the Maze development?
Sadly whilst they fight over what is essentially a monument to the past, the real, burning political crisis is being missed: collectively they have lost public support to a truly alarming extent and a majority of young people and a growing number of the rest of us say they won’t even bother to vote.