Sam McBride: Low European election turnout in Northern Ireland is baffling

A voter at Belmont Primary School poling station, east Belfast
A voter at Belmont Primary School poling station, east Belfast
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The three and a half day delay in counting the votes from Thursday’s European election means that the result is still entirely unknown.

However, one fact is by now very clear. Turnout has been mediocre, with a majority of those eligible to vote having chosen not to do so.

Last night the Electoral Office confirmed that turnout was 45.14%. That is down on the last European election in 2014 which had a 51.8% turnout and also down on the 52.7% turnout in the council elections three weeks ago.

Whatever the outcome, the low turnout is somewhat baffling. While an upset for the third seat – involving either Naomi Long, Colum Eastwood or Jim Allister taking it from the UUP – would be significant, its significance is diminished by the fact that most people have not voted, despite the enormity of what is at stake.

For three years, Britain’s departure from the EU has dominated political debate and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. It is a topic on which few people are neutral and about which a large percentage of the population feel passionately.

Northern Ireland, as the sole part of the UK sharing a land border with an EU state, will be the most immediately and acutely impacted by such a fundamental change.

It is also the part of the UK where the relative constitutional contentment of a significant section of the population has been upset, with wider destabilising consequences.

This was the closest we have come to a second referendum and involved candidates standing on manifestos of working to reverse Brexit or to implement it.

How then to explain the apparent indifference of a majority of the population? Where is the surge in particular of ‘civic nationalism’ which has been most unhappy at the initial Brexit vote?

The turnout is reminiscent of the EU referendum itself which saw a 62.7% turnout, 10 percentage points lower than the UK-wide turnout. The turnout in the West Tyrone was, unprecedentedly, lower than North Down on the east coast of Northern Ireland – despite the former being on the border, where Brexit will have an obvious impact, and the latter being the furthest constituency from the border. The turnout in the republican heartland of West Belfast was lower than in the Assembly election just a few weeks earlier.

Yet, having not turned out in great numbers to vote in the referendum, there was unquestionable shock, dismay and anger across much of nationalism after the result went in favour of Leave.

Among the explanations proffered for the lower nationalist turnout in that contest was the sense that Brexit had been an intra-Tory argument from which Irish nationalists felt remote. But while that may have been the case in 2016, the practical impact of Brexit in Northern Ireland is now indisputable.

There are other factors which might explain why so many have this time chosen not to vote – a general weariness with politics, resignation towards Brexit due to Northern Ireland’s small size and disillusionment with a last-minute election to choose MEPs who may only serve a few months in office.

The DUP and Sinn Féin were also restrained in how they campaigned, aware both of the security of their seats and the likelihood of an expensive general election campaign later this year.

It is clear – both anecdotally and through polling – that there are deep concerns about Brexit, particularly from nationalists and centrist voters. But the fact that most of the electorate could not be bothered to vote at all – let alone come out en masse to oppose Brexit – undermines pro-EU parties’ arguments about the fervency of Northern Ireland’s opposition to leaving the EU.

It would be dangerous to assume that a low turnout in these unique circumstances equals indifference by every non-voter. But this turnout does nothing to boost the Remain camp within Northern Ireland.