When it comes to election messages, Northern Ireland’s politicians are not stupid after all!

By Edward Ferrin- Deputy and Business/Economics Editor

At election time, the political debate always looks like a sectarian dog fight between unionist and nationalist, but have you ever wondered why it seems to work every time? When there is an election in Northern Ireland, there is always a guarantee in the outcome – a huge unionist victory or a huge nationalist victory, not as a result of any policy issue but merely from the turnout of both groups. Sadly, the sectarian scare game always is and has been the greatest tool to ‘get the vote out.’ Arlene Foster showed how clearly the turnout mattered more than policies in the 2019 General Election when she commented on the result in North Belfast and replied that ‘the demographics just weren’t there.’ I remember thinking just how her response that night sounded like a US. Senator speaking on a close race in the deep South or a race in a swing state like Maine or Arizona. Demographics should not be the overriding factor in why elections are won or lost; it is the whole constituency that elects a slate of candidates to power which includes a diverse community. It is policies, both economic and social which are the issues which appear in a party manifesto. A party manifesto in Northern Ireland contains policy platforms for social and economic change, not maps of each constituency colour-coded to show the demographics for each waring faction.

So how does demographics as Arlene Foster said, play such an important role in the elections in Northern Ireland. Fear and scare-mongering in election campaigning always make the best ‘fundraisers’ for electoral support as it is not what you want to vote for but what you want to vote against that makes your choice at the polling booth. Back in the beginning days of Northern Ireland, many voters in the suburbs of Belfast faced widespread poverty and grim prospects. The NI. Labour Party stood on a platform to tackle these problems but at each election to Stormont, they failed to gain votes or seats in the Belfast area. Why? Well the vast majority of those who faced poverty in Belfast were unionists, but they always voted for the Unionist Party because it was either ‘them or us.’ Simple election messages are the best to remember, like ‘unity now’ or ‘defend the union.’

Pictured Arlene Foster, former leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

The constitutional question on Northern Ireland faces us at every election, as one party on either side will always say that a United Ireland is ‘only around the corner’ or that the United Kingdom has never been in such ‘peril.’ Elections won’t decide the constitutional question, as a Border Poll will make that decision whenever one will crop up. Turnout at elections should be decided on issues such as the health service or how the government is acting when it comes to financing the economy, not on whether the unionist turnout or nationalist turnout looks high or low. It will be extremely difficult for to persuade hardliners in the unionist or nationalist community to vote for a more moderate party, but that doesn’t mean that they never will vote for a moderate party. The voters in Northern Ireland can be persuaded to vote along non-sectarian lines, as one day the political problems will become far more important than the constitutional question.

I laugh at those who say to me that they are ‘non-sectarian’ but voted because they were ‘afraid the other side might win.’ The fact is no side wins. Whichever side you view the elections from as every time when the electorate votes under polarised conditions, the majority of those in Northern Ireland (including those who vote for moderate parties and those who don’t vote at all) will lose their voice under the dictatorship of the two extremes. The Assembly uses STV, a proportional electoral system aimed at giving as many parties the chance to win seats. However, STV hasn’t stopped the clever politicians at elections from claiming that you must vote for a ‘single, strong, stable’ unionist or nationalist party, like the Democratic Unionist Party or Sinn Fein and stop the opposing side from being First Minister and the largest party.

Peter Robinson struck a coup when the St. Andrew’s Agreement adopted ‘mandatory coalition.’ This arrangement meant that at every future Assembly election, the centre ground parties would be squeezed bit by bit when the extreme parties use the same old scare tactic to gain votes. If you have ever watched any debate that Sinn Fein or the DUP took part in between 2017 and 2019, you might have heard both parties say that they ‘had the largest and best result in their history’ or words to that effect. That shows that they are not the biggest parties because of their policies but rather because of their ability to ‘get the vote out’ at each election. The fact is the two extremes on both sides of the political divide have the funding to print thousands of leaflets and have enough members to canvass their constituencies at least five times a day.

Pictured, the 2006 St Andrews Agreement

This means that unless the voters become a little more sophisticated in how they vote, Northern Ireland politics will still be a turn off for future generations. What I mean by sophisticated is that voters need to go to the polls for reasons other than the constitution and vote based on the economy and problems facing society day in and day out. Harold McCusker once openly pondered over how the unionist parties fooled their electorate into voting for the same parties over the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. He once spoke of how in 1982, unionists were pleased to see Charles Haughey gone in the Irish Republic but ‘to regret he’s away because he was a very easy target to identify and a bogeyman whom we could point out to our electorate, but you can’t do that with Garret Fitzgerald.’

The fact is that what McCusker talked about in his metaphor of a ‘bogeyman’ is still sadly what the unionist politicians and nationalist politicians continue to do in the 21st century. In the 2017 Assembly elections, Arlene Foster summed up Sinn Fein’s demand for an Irish language act with the comment ‘if you feed a crocodile, it will keep coming back for more.’ She again is the perfect example of a politician, who uses a ‘bogeyman’ to get the unionists out in their droves to vote for the unionist parties. She mentioned Gerry Adams 12 times in her party manifesto launch and Sinn Fein 32 times. Instead it gave Sinn Fein the perfect opportunity to use her as a ‘bogeyman’ and in the election, Sinn Fein took 27 seats (-1) against the Democratic Unionists 28 seats. (-10)

Published by The Gown Queen's University Belfast

The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.

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