At the 2011 Assembly election the DUP, Sinn Fein, UUP, SDLP and Alliance accounted for 105 of the 108 MLAs: Steven Agnew (Green), Jim Allister (TUV) and David McClarty (Independent) were the other three. The lack of structures for formal opposition and the fact that the five main parties were all represented in the Executive should have made it extraordinarily difficult for the others to be heard, let alone exercise any influence.
Yet, the so-called ‘naughty corner’ (Basil McCrea, John McCallister and David McNarry were to join it when they left the UUP and Claire Sugden replaced David McClarty when he died) played a vital role in the last mandate. Allister, Agnew and McCallister were responsible for three Private Member’s Bills – including Opposition – and the other three could be relied upon for thoughtful and measured contributions to many debates.
Only four of the ‘naughty corner’ – McCallister, Allister, Agnew and Sugden – are seeking re-election and all, if only because of their collective role last time, deserve to win. And it would be good if others joined them, because every governing body – even when there is a functioning opposition – benefits from the presence of independent, maverick, unpredictable voices.
Admittedly, some of the voices may be strident, egotistical and occasionally disruptive, but that’s no bad thing, either. The broader the debate the better for democracy and the more likely it is that the wider electorate will tune in rather than disengage.
Surprisingly, only 23 of the 276 candidates seeking election on Thursday are standing as Independents – including Sugden and McCallister – and over half of them are former members of the big five parties. In West Tyrone, for example, two of the Independents belonged to the SDLP a few months ago, while another only left Sinn Fein in March.
In East Belfast an Independent was working in the UUP’s constituency office until a few weeks ago, while Ruth Patterson, in South Belfast, was expelled from the DUP at the end of last year.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some new-to-local-politics Independents out there. David McMaster, in South Antrim, describes himself as a ‘progressive independent, beholden to no one’; while Tor Christie, in East Londonderry, has put some of his campaign songs online.
Corey French, in West Tyrone, is a 21-year-old barman who wants to “blow away the cobwebs in Stormont”; while Anne McCloskey, a GP in the Foyle constituency, is hoping to repeat the electoral success of Dr Kieran Deeney, who was elected as an MLA for West Tyrone in 2003 and 2007.
To be honest, most Independents have little hope of success, but we should be grateful that they raise their heads above the parapet and offer greater choice.
Seven parties – really – will be fighting their first Assembly election, although four of them, Democracy First, NI First, the South Belfast Unionist Party and the Animal Welfare Party are fielding just one candidate. CISTA (Cannabis is Safer than Tobacco and Alcohol) is fielding three candidates.
But Frazer McCammond, leader of Democracy First, makes a valid point: “Across Northern Ireland at the 2011 Assembly election the DUP and Sinn Fein respectively took 16.4 per cent and 14.7 per cent first preference votes as a percentage of the total electorate. Some 46 per cent of the electorate chose not to vote, a 50 per cent increase since 1998. Forty-six per cent – our largest constituency – is unrepresented, yet with the power to change politics.”
Cross-Community Labour Alternative (which was registered in March) is fielding three candidates – all under the age of 25 – and hoping to attract the sort of young audience who have been impressed by the socialism of leaders like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. There is a raw energy and passion about these youngsters (and I don’t use the term patronisingly) and they have been working tremendously hard during the campaign.
The Northern Ireland Labour Representation Committee (registered in April) are Labour Party members here who are defying their own party and hoping to prove that they have enough support to persuade the party to let them stand as bona fide Labour candidates at all future elections. It’s a risky strategy – they’re only standing in eight constituencies – but a worthwhile one, because politics here, particularly in the Assembly, could do with that sort of national input. And how can Labour continue to say no, while the Conservatives endorse their own candidates?
These seven parties, along with the Independents, are fielding just 41 candidates between them; and because they’re competing with each other in quite a few constituencies they’ll struggle, as they have in previous elections to secure victories. The Conservatives and Workers’ Party are in the mix, but evidence suggests that there’s little prospect of a breakthrough. So, realistically speaking, the main challenge to the big five is going to come from the TUV, PUP, Ukip, Greens and People Before Profit.
All of them have a reasonable chance of securing at least one seat, maybe two on a good day. I made a bet at the Green conference that if Claire Bailey won a seat in South Belfast I would sing a song on the front steps of Stormont and it’s beginning to look as though she’ll hold me to it.
Anyway, a ‘naughty corner’ composed of McCallister, Sugden, Greens, TUV, PUP, Ukip and PBP would be a fascinating prospect. And, if co-existing with a proper and competitive Opposition, would be the biggest and best thing to have happened to the Assembly since July 1998. Is that prospect worth a vote? You decide.