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The Northern Ireland Assembly elections revealed the failures of devolution

The big story of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections was not the re-instating of the DUP and Sinn Fein, but the dramatic fall-off in turnout. Voter apathy reveals the failures of devolution in such vital areas as education, public service management and the control of paramilitary violence
Robin Wilson
12 May 2011

If the election to the Scottish Parliament saw a seismic shift in the political landscape, in Northern Ireland, as so often, the tectonic plates ground more slowly.

There were small percentage shifts in first-preference votes—the assembly election is under the single transferable vote— and seats which consolidated the position of the principal ethno-nationalist parties, the Democratic Unionist Party  (38 seats) and Sinn Féin (29), at the expense of the Ulster Unionist Party (16) and the SDLP (14). But the main mover was the small, liberal Alliance Party (8), whose first preferences rose by nearly half to 7.7 per cent. 

The big story of the election was an extraordinarily slow-moving and inefficient count. But perhaps the biggest story was the one really large shift since the last assembly poll—the precipitate fall-off in turnout.

At 54.5 per cent of registered electors, this showed a nine-point drop on 2007. This despite the campaign by the DUP to get out the Protestant vote to stop SF prevailing and Martin McGuinness taking the first-minister position. A televised leaders’ debate in the week of the election attracted just one in 20 registered voters.

There are three reasons for this, none of which bodes well for the new assembly term.

First, the big claim for power-sharing devolution for Northern Ireland—which only Alliance unequivocally backed before the Belfast agreement—was that it would be an antidote to paramilitary violence. Yet the move from relatively impartial if remote rule from Westminster to contested sectarian governance has seen violence perversely rise during both periods of devolution (1999-2002 and 2007-present), while falling during the direct-rule interregnum.

This is remarkably mirrored in popular confidence. Every year the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey asks respondents if they believe ‘community relations’ are better than five years ago and whether they expect them to be better in five years time. This feelgood/optimism quotient has also fallen during the two periods of devolution, while rising in the interim. A consultation document from the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister last autumn on ‘cohesion, sharing and integration’—the product of protracted negotiations between the DUP and SF—was withdrawn after it was roundly criticised by experts and reconciliation practitioners for fatalistically accepting sectarian division.

The second problem is that, while this was widely billed in the media as a ‘bread and butter’ issues campaign, none of the parties with the exception of Alliance—whose manifesto ran to 150 pages!—offered much beyond populist proposals to keep down the regional rate (the only locally variable revenue source), to defer (again) water charges and to urge a reduction in corporation tax (based, like the parallel campaign in Scotland, on a misreading of the now fatally wounded ‘Celtic tiger’). Defined by their communal affiliations rather than along a left-right spectrum, they offered voters no significant policy choices.

The third, and related, problem is that devolution is making no difference—except in a negative sense. The inability of the executive to manage public services effectively—including its refusal to raise the necessary additional revenue—has seen hospital waiting lists also rise under both periods of Stormont rule, having similarly been brought down when London took over. 

In education, there has been deadlock ever since the former executive collapsed in 2002 over the continuation of academic selection at 11—Protestant parties support it, Catholic parties (and most educationalists) oppose, leaving a chaotic and unregulated transition through private examinations. Meanwhile there are 80,000 empty school places because of the unwillingness of the main parties to integrate the education system, as the all-too-brief 1974 power-sharing executive decided.

Finally, the recession has hit Northern Ireland hard. Unemployment has nearly doubled in four-years. The Irish Times cartoonist Martyn Turner once presciently drew a person with a clipboard interviewing an Everyman figure, asking: “Under which constitutional arrangement would you prefer to be unemployed?” (above).

Northern Ireland desperately needs some well-founded ‘constitutional engineering’—unlike the amoral Realpolitik pursued in such cavalier fashion by Tony Blair, which has left a legacy of a dysfunctional government replete with sectarian vetoes. Power must be genuinely shared, as Duncan Morrow has put it, rather than cynically shared out, if any prospect of reconciliation is to remain. A more flexible system — while still guaranteeing equality for members of the Catholic minority from a drift back towards Protestant majority rule — is essential if a more normal arrangement, of left versus right, with an opposition as well as a government, is ever to arrive.

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