On February 28, 1974, I cast my first ever vote. It was an important and exciting election: the UUP had allied with Vanguard and the DUP in the United Ulster Unionist Coalition and were seeking a mandate to destroy both the agreement – ‘Dublin is only a Sunningdale away’ – and former UUP leader Brian Faulkner.
I supported the power-sharing executive (Faulkner, SDLP and Alliance) and I also believed that, if left to their own devices for another few months, they would sort out the problems raised by the Council of Ireland proposals.
But I had a difficulty in the Armagh constituency. There was no pro-agreement unionist candidate in the field. I wasn’t comfortable with the SDLP at that point, for they were much more explicitly Irish unity than they were to become. The Alliance candidate struck me as terribly timid and not particularly inclined towards the Union (so no change there, then). I could, I suppose, have opted out, but it was my first opportunity to vote and I wanted to have an input. So I voted for Harold McCusker: partly because I was a unionist and partly because I thought that even if the UUUC did well (and they went on to take 51 per cent of the total vote) some sort of deal would be possible through the Assembly.
That who-do-I-vote-for dilemma is one that faces many people on election day.
In other words, what do you do if there isn’t a candidate or party that truly reflects your opinion? Is it ok to vote for the person who comes closest to your views? Or is it better to spoil your vote? Or do you just stay at home? I’m often told that people who don’t vote have no right to complain afterwards. But what right have you to complain if you vote for the same-old, same-old and then get the same-old, same-old? Complaining is one of the bedrocks of the democratic process and it is often the nature and scale of those complaints which steer political parties and shape public opinion.
I voted for the Good Friday Agreement in the 1998 referendum. It wasn’t an easy decision, because I had huge concerns about how the Assembly would function and the fact that there wasn’t much accountability, let alone space for an Opposition. But I hoped that a strong yes vote, accompanied by genuine goodwill and the trust that comes from working together to build a new era Northern Ireland would outweigh my other concerns. I hoped that people would be nudged closer together, that new post-conflict parties and vehicles would emerge and that something resembling ‘normal’ politics would develop. I voted yes because it seemed like the right thing to do in the circumstances: as voting for Harold McCusker had seemed the right thing to do in the circumstances back in 1974.
But none of those hopes have been realised and I see no evidence of their realisation anytime soon. And nor is there any serious political/electoral challenge to the old order. So why vote? Why vote for parties who either don’t want change or who are too weak and dithery to deliver change? I have never voted in the Euro elections: I opposed the EEC and I oppose the EU and I don’t believe that any party, even the UKIP, is serious about withdrawal. So I’m not going to waste my time with the charade that passes for EU debate.
I have a right to complain about the collective failure of the parties here to deliver local change. I have the right to complain about the lack of serious, credible alternatives to these parties. I have a right to say that there is no-one I would feel comfortable voting for. I have a right not to vote: a right I will be exercising on May 22.
In so doing I will be joining the almost 50 per cent who don’t vote. Indeed, on May 22 the non-voters may represent a majority of the electorate. That, I believe, would be a good thing.
Change comes in many ways, but one way will be when the Assembly, and councils and MPs are clearly seen not to represent a majority of the electorate. It weakens the parties and strips them of authority and it undermines their claim to speak on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland.
And when they are seen to represent a minority it is at that point that the non-voters may get their act together and realise that there really is room for new thinking and new vehicles.
By choosing not to vote I’m not indicating that I’m disinterested in politics or government. I’m not switching off and looking the other way. I’m not burying my head in the sand and hoping that the present farrago will just disappear. By not voting I’m exercising the ‘Network’ option and yelling from my window “I’m mad as hell and I’m not taking this anymore”. By not voting I’m sending a message: the Assembly isn’t working, the Executive is dysfunctional, we have farce rather than government, the parties don’t care; and nothing is being allowed to change because the parties at the centre of it all don’t actually want it to change.
The greatest indictment of the failure of our party political classes since 1998 can be gauged from the opinion polls. The vast majority of people believe that the Assembly isn’t working and makes no difference to their lives. A whopping majority of young people doesn’t believe that there is a lasting peace. And huge numbers of our best, most talented people, are choosing to leave. The old parties have failed to rise to the challenge of creating a post-conflict Northern Ireland and so-called ‘new’ parties simply trot out cliché and fortune cookie responses.
That’s why I won’t be voting. I see no point. I have voted in every general, council and Assembly election since 1974 because I believed that it was the right thing to do in the circumstances – that my vote would make a difference. I won’t be voting on May 22 because I don’t believe my vote makes a difference and I’m not prepared anymore to endorse the travesty that passes itself off as government here. My right. My choice.