Leona O'Neill: The upcoming election can bring positive change – if you use your vote

It's election time again and, as Leona explains, the only way to help effect positive change in the north and get things moving forward in a positive manner again is to use your vote – and use it wisely

Defeat toxic tribal politics by voting for someone who reflects your concerns

AFTER the tragic and heartbreaking events over Easter, I don’t think any of us are in mood for an election, but whether we like it or not, we’re getting one this week.

Three weeks after journalist Lyra McKee was murdered on the streets of my city – a stark and brutal reminder of our dark past – this Thursday we will get the chance to change our future in some small way.

Working as a reporter across both communities and across Northern Ireland has always given me an insight into the feelings on the ground and what I have seen over the last few years in particular has scared me.

We had been moving forward and, despite bumps on the road, we were going somewhere positive. However, our political stalemate had stalled our engines and we were, for a while, at the side of the road – bonnet popped, smoke billowing from the engine as our politicians stood round with tense folded arms, rolling their eyes, pursing their lips and intermittently screaming at one another.

While they were busy arguing, someone else someone with malicious intent got into the driving seat and stuck the car in reverse. Slowly and surely we have been going backwards since. Back towards sectarianism, back towards extremism, back towards violence and division and a toxic society.

On the way, he picked up a few passengers, some of them members of the next generation of Northern Irish people who weren't even born when our Troubles consumed us the first time around. He filled their heads full of nostalgia, anger and hate. And here we are, two and a bit years down the line, with death on our streets, fear in our homes and a heavy black cloud hanging over the whole of Northern Ireland.

This is not the Northern Ireland I want my children to grow up in. We stayed here and built a life because we were promised more. The ceasefire babies – of whom Lyra McKee was one – were promised hope and peace and a better life than their parents had to endure. And now look at us.

A lot of people I’ve been speaking to this week of all shades have said they are not going to bother to vote this week, that they are fed up with the toxic politics here, that their vote won’t make a damn bit of difference to anything.

The problem with that notion is that people who sit at home fed up with the whole thing and not casting their vote are in essence helping to vote the same people in time and time again – and nothing changes.

What has happened over the last two years is political nothingness, we have been dead in the water. We are not an attractive region for investment due to our instability, our schools are struggling, our hospitals are in critical condition, services are closing, welfare reform is crippling us and we are an unemployment hotspot where hope is a rare commodity.

The vacuum of economic deprivation and hopelessness created by this glaring lack of leadership has allowed frustration, violence, resentment and sectarianism to grow.

I doubt anyone can look at the last two years and say they have been a success, that they are happy with what has happened, or not happened. Something has to change and we need to make that change from the bottom up. What have we to lose? It can’t possibly get any worse than it already is, but it can certainly stay the same.

We need change in Northern Ireland to make things better for everyone – for the kids in Creggan who feel they have no hope, for the parents in Turf Lodge who feel they have gained nothing from the Good Friday Agreement, for the families in Tiger’s Bay who want a peaceful life, for our young people all over Northern Ireland who want to stay here with their families and create a life for themselves.

This week if you do anything, look at your local council election candidates, find one who best reflects your interests, your concerns, your community – whether that be in the big parties, the smaller parties, the independents – and give them a chance to fight your corner.

You don’t have to agree with every single thing they stand for. I know this merry-go-round is so frustrating, but by not voting you are handing your power over to someone else to use.

Right now, more than ever before, we need leaders of every shade to take our communities forward – from our councillors to our MLAs to our MPs – in a positive way.

Otherwise, we may as well just give up and allow ourselves to be dragged back to the past without resistance.

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