David McCann: Northern Ireland isn't working – non-voters hold the power to shake up our political system

David McCann

David McCann

David McCann is an Irish News columnist and commentator on politics and elections.

The turnout at the 2022 Assembly Election was 63.6 per cent – those who don't already vote could shake up the political system if they cast their ballot on polling day
The turnout at the 2022 Assembly Election was 63.6 per cent – those who don't already vote could shake up the political system if they cast their ballot on polling day

ONE of the most challenging parts of this job is arguing in defence of politicians and the political process. It is always easy to use labels such as "they are all the same" or "nothing ever changes".

In recent times it has become harder to defend paying attention to or caring about the political system. With a revolving door of prime ministers in the UK and no government at all at Stormont, I understand why whole sections of the public disengage with politics. But disengagement and disillusion, whilst understandable, is not a desirable way to help improve our society.

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No confidence in political system

In recent elections, we have consistently seen north of 33 per cent of people not bothering to vote. That is thousands of voters who have the potential to shift huge numbers of Assembly and Westminster seats, not being able to recognise their own power to shake up the political system.

If those who did not vote took the time to do so, it is no exaggeration to say that we could see major changes in party fortunes and a real change to how our politics is conducted. There is truth in that old adage that says, "Don't give out about bad politicians, vote them out and keep them out."

We need to build up a sense of trust and confidence in our political system. Even when we had a sitting Executive its approval ratings were abysmal. At times they were lower than the approval ratings of the Irish and Greek governments at the time of their bailouts from the IMF in 2010. In fact, they were lower than the approval ratings enjoyed by Liz Truss during the darkest days of her disastrous 49-day premiership.

Should we get an Executive and Assembly back in the next few months it will have to focus on government delivery. For too many people, Northern Ireland simply does not work. I do not mean that in a constitutional sense. I mean in an everyday one. The average member of the public sees their essential services failing and their infrastructure crumbling.

Little wonder people have no faith in politicians

In other countries, big projects are done on budget and on time; here they can spend years languishing with little drive to get them completed. It is little wonder that so many people just give up on the idea that politicians can solve these problems.

But the simple fact is that Northern Ireland is not North Korea and if we are to turn around the ship of state, we need to ensure that all of us are engaged and properly informed about the decisions that need to be taken. Politicians will go as far as the voters allow them to, it is as simple as that.

The next Executive will come into office with at least 18 months of its mandate used up, meaning that the scope for tough decisions will have much less time to be considered.

The next set of local ministers will face a difficult set of years ahead as budgets remain squeezed and the ability to spend on new projects becomes limited. That is not new for governments. In 2009, governments across Europe faced these challenges.

No magic fiscal bullet

Yet as was seen in places like the Irish Republic if politicians show the right leadership, things can be turned around and the foundations of stronger future economic growth built. The Executive parties need to recognise there is no magic fiscal bullet coming to save us. We need reform, not just to fix our services but to also show the public that our political system is up to the challenge.

In the years ahead, I wish our politicians well in this task. Not because I will agree with every decision they will make, but because we need to show that Northern Ireland politicians can govern and do so in a coherent fashion. It is fashionable to say that all our politicians are the same and never do anything for anybody. However, I know that just is not true. It is only through politics that any of us have any say over our destiny.

We need the public to come on this journey and recognise that they are not bystanders in this process. Apathy is not the answer.