Sunday, December 4

‘It’s a bit of a circus’: the Northern Irish voters tired of polarized politics | Northern Ireland

On the streets of Enniskillen, a handful of twentysomething women, all from a unionist background, discuss this week’s elections.

The Northern Ireland protocol does not come up once, but what does surface repeatedly among 18- to 34-year-olds asked open questions about their voting intentions is the frustration with the framing of this election, like many before it, as a vote on the constitutional question of whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK or unify with Ireland.

“It’s the scaremongering I don’t like. People telling you you have to vote DUP to keep the other side out,” says one 25-year-old worker who wanted to remain anonymous.

“I’m a unionist, but I’m not going to be influenced by that protocol stuff. What’s important for me is the health stuff. You have to stand up for women’s issues, that’s important,” she adds, shorthand for why she is not voting for the DUP.

“To be honest I think all the parties have let everyone down. I’ve been waiting for two weeks just to get an appointment with the GP,” she says.

She is a “from a unionist background” but voted to remain and says she will probably vote for the Ulster Unionist party because of “things like abortion and women’s issues”.

She has no interest in the constitutional question and the tribal voting. “Until people stop viewing things as unionist or nationals, Northern Ireland will never change,” she says.

The Enniskillen straw poll shows that young people, who have no memory of the Troubles, yearn for a day when polarized nationalist-versus-unionist arguments, which polls show are popular with older voters, are over.

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“I was brought up a Protestant but I’m not really that influenced by that. Me and my siblings will vote for progression rather than religion, ”says her friend de ella.

Down the street are young parents Grace Hoy, a primary school teacher who is looking at voting for the Green party, and her physiotherapist husband, Mark, who is looking at an independent “cross community” candidate, Donal O’Cofaigh.

“It’s just a bit of a circus this election,” says Grace, 27. “People focus too much on stopping the other side getting in. I’m not voting for people who want to bicker or fight over these silly issues.

“The issues for me are healthcare, the lack of childcare, support for young families.”

Away from the headline battles between Sinn Féin and the DUP and the turmoil within unionism, the question for post-conflict Northern Ireland is whether constitutional politics will ever be remote enough to be in the rear-view mirror.

A LucidTalk poll for the Belfast Telegraph in March put the combined support for the Alliance party, the Green party and other non-aligned rivals such as People Before Profit at 24%, with their most recent survey results on Friday showing a slight fall to 21%.

It is a sizeable chunk compared with Sinn Féin at 26% and the DUP at 20%, according to the poll commissioned by the Belfast Telegraph, but is it enough?

The Alliance party will be the sanctuary for many votes eschewing the constitutional political positioning of the main parties, with some predicting they could add between three and five seats to their existing eight.

It will mean a larger presence in Stormont, but with 90 seats to be taken it will still be a minority.

“This is not going to be the election where people cross the Rubicon in significant numbers,” says Peter Shirlow, director of the Institute of Irish studies at the University of Liverpool.

“People say they’re fed up, say they want it all to stop. They don’t want the election to be about the legacy, they want the end to arguing, they want a different assembly, but the thing about it is, most of the people who feel that way is they don’t vote.”

However, he believes the proportional representation system could deliver some results for those in the middle. “What we are seeing is there is a growth for those non-constitutional parties, but where they’re very strong is in second preferences. That could theoretically be a gamechanger,” he says.

Launching the Alliance party’s manifesto last week, Naomi Long, its leader, expressed frustration that those who support the non-aligned parties do not have the same voice as the unionists and nationalists because of the consociational system set up for post-conflict powersharing.

She said she wanted an end to the system where by members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) are designated as unionist, nationalist or other.

“About 15% of MLAs currently are non-aligned in the assembly, yet we still count for less in votes on key issues. We cannot say that our community are all equal if within the heart of the institutions which govern this place there is inequality and disrespect for people’s rights.

“I believe that the days of designations are over. The Good Friday agreement allowed us an opportunity to manage our divisions, but surely as a society that cannot be the ceiling of our ambitions.”

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