Election turnout fears as TV debate figures plummet

Audiences for both the UTV leaders' debate (above) and its BBC equivalent were massively down.
Audiences for both the UTV leaders' debate (above) and its BBC equivalent were massively down.

The audience for this week’s two televised leaders’ debates has plunged, in what could be an indication that voter fatigue could translate into a lower turnout in today’s second snap election this year.

March’s Assembly election saw voter turnout increase massively by 10 percentage points as anger at the ‘cash for ash’ scandal and a re-energised nationalism brought more voters out to the polls.

An early indicator of that increased public interest in politics had come in the viewing figures for February’s UTV and BBC leaders’ debates, which went up by 42% and 75% respectively from last year.

But the viewing figures for this week’s televised leaders’ debates suggest that the renewed interest in politics has not lasted, falling back to what have been the average audiences for such debates over recent years.

Unlike the rest of the UK, the campaign in Northern Ireland has largely been low-key, with many of the parties’ funds depleted and their activists weary from having just emerged from a first unexpected election three months ago.

The audience for UTV’s debate on Monday night fell by 37% – down from an average audience of 141,000 to 88,000.

And overnight viewing figures show that the audience for Tuesday night’s BBC debate (which only featured three of the five leaders) was also massively down.

That debate was watched by 47% fewer people than the corresponding programme in February – down from an average audience of 172,000 to 90,000.

While the lower TV figures could point to a lower turnout, they could also point to something else.

It could be that due to this election having been fought on far more overtly orange and green lines than that in March many voters know who they are voting for and therefore did not watch the debates.

Figures published by the Electoral Office show that there has been a 20% increase in the number of postal and proxy votes in this election, which would normally be seen as a potential indicator of an increased turnout.

Amid concerns from some parties about such absent votes being abused, their number has increased to 35,515 – roughly enough to elect two MPs.

More than 1.2 million voters – 1,242,698 – people are eligible to vote across Northern Ireland today.

Sinn Fein and the SDLP have framed the election as one about attempting to secure EU ‘special status’ for Northern Ireland and Sinn Fein is also calling for a border poll within five years.

The DUP and UUP have stressed that Brexit is happening and Northern Ireland should not have a status which in any way constitutionally diminishes its position within the UK or erects barriers to trade or travel with the rest of the UK.

The DUP in particular has also called for a firm endorsement of the Union in today’s election and has also argued that it is the party committed to resurrecting Stormont devolution, with no red lines about going back into government with Sinn Fein.

Alliance has said that it would support offering voters a second EU referendum once the terms of the Brexit negotiation are known.

Smaller parties include the Greens, People Before Profit and (in terms of its support in Northern Ireland) the Conservatives.

But there is an unusually narrow field of unionist candidates, with the TUV standing just one candidate while both Ukip and the PUP are not contesting a single seat.

In a final message to voters last night, DUP leader Arlene Foster said: “The DUP seeks a mandate for the Union that really matters - the Union with Great Britain.

“A vote for the DUP is a vote for the Union. A vote for the DUP is a vote for real influence at Westminster and a vote for the DUP is a vote to secure the best deal for Northern Ireland as the United Kingdom leaves the European Union.

“Northern Ireland needs one strong unionist voice at Westminster and in the negotiations that follow. The DUP is that strong voice.”

But Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill presented the election as another chance for her party to continue its recent momentum.

She said: “By voting Sinn Fein you can strengthen our hand in the coming negotiations to re-establish the Executive, to secure designated status for the North within the EU and promote progressive politics including an Irish Language Act and the right to marriage equality.”

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said the election was the most significant for a generation.

“This is your opportunity to put your stamp on the future direction of the Union we cherish and the type of future you want for your children and grandchildren,” he said.

“It will be decided at the ballot box. If you want to build a stronger, better Union for everyone based on respect; if you want the best possible deal for Northern Ireland in Brexit negotiations; and if you want to make sure that your voice is heard in Westminster, then vote Ulster Unionist.”

Alliance Leader Naomi Long said her party had a chance to make history and return two MPs - in south and east Belfast.

“Many people have tried to make this election as orange vs green and engage in the politics of fear but people are increasingly turned off by that,” she said.

“That’s why only a few months ago voters came out in record numbers to back Alliance and why our positive message is receiving a fantastic response.”

Earlier in the week, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: “The electoral math of the election is crystal clear. A vote for the DUP is a vote for Theresa May. A vote for Sinn Fein won’t count at all...vote SDLP.”

Yesterday the UUP’s South Down candidate, Harold McKee, contacted the News Letter to clarify that he has not stepped aside from the race, despite what he said some people in the constituency had erroneously been claiming.