Leona O’Neill: I’ll be voting in this election – will you?

Most people’s lives have got worse over the last few years, not better. Will voting make that any better? I’d like to think so

Nigel Farage, pictured outside his local polling station this morning, appeared to concede defeat in his campaign for a Leave vote in the EU referendum 
Nigel Farage pictured outside a polling station during the Brexit referendum – a vote where turnout undeniably did matter

What’s the point in voting? Nothing ever changes.

I’ve heard that sentiment being expressed ever since the July 4 election was called. People are currently in survival mode, trying to keep their heads above water. They are tired and fed up and need energised. Will a bunch of politicians knocking on their doors in the next few weeks be the injection in their arm to get them into a polling booth?

Who knows? This is Northern Ireland after all – unpredictable is our middle name.

I remember being sent to Ballymena to do a vox pop on an upcoming election for a newspaper. I spent the morning on the street asking people for their thoughts. By lunchtime I was drowning my sorrows in a local coffee shop, tallying up the number of times people had told me ‘I’m not voting’ or ‘I’m not interested in politics’ or ‘voting is a waste of time’ or ‘politics is nothing to do with me’.

The people telling me they weren’t voting had children in prams, or were of pension age, or were working people who, like the rest of us, depend on health services here to be good so they can stay well, transport services working so they can work, or education to be funded properly so that our schools aren’t crumbling around their children’s ears. I’m not exactly sure if they fully understood who makes decisions on all of that stuff they vow not to be interested in.

Our views on politics here are certainly unique and as far from straightforward as it is possible to get. People can be totally detached from the processes and happy enough for others to make decisions for them. Or they can be so utterly engrossed in the process and the players that they will tear someone down for challenging the views or policies of their chosen candidate. Politics is passionate and vicious here.

nuns at polling station in london (Isabel Infantes/PA)
In local elections last year, almost half of people stayed at home

Doing a piece outside a polling station in Belfast many years ago, a man told me that the candidate he was voting for could come out of the polling station and shoot him and he would still crawl in and vote for him. A sentiment that was just as depressing as the folks who refuse to mark their ballot paper.

You can say many things about us here, but what you can’t accuse us of is shying away from our extremes.

But still a sizeable number of people here don’t bother to vote.

In the 2023 local elections, 46 per cent of the voting population stayed at home, despite the cost of living snapping at us all. With the Brexit vote, almost 40 per cent of people didn’t cast their vote, despite the seismic impact that decision had on all of us. Similar numbers didn’t vote in the last UK general election.

Who knows if this election will have pizazz enough to get people out. Over the last number of years people have become more insular, more concerned with keeping themselves afloat. Our political system – particularly in Northern Ireland – is toxic and relentlessly exhausting. It never seems to report any wins. So people naturally switch off. And that suits certain parties who swing their election machines into action, draw the battle lines, ramp up ante and get their core base out to the polling stations.

People don’t vote for a number of reasons. We exist in the internet age. People are stuck in social media echo chambers, algorithms feed them what they want to hear. People who don’t want to engage with politics don’t have to.

Ballot boxes are opened at Omagh leisure centre. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Ballot boxes are opened at Omagh leisure centre

Lack of knowledge about how it all works is another reason. Most people don’t understand enough about government or how it directly impacts them. Spend five minutes on social media debating politics and this will be proven correct in glorious ignorant technicolour. People will blindly believe what is fed to them by those who crave power.

Most people’s lives have got worse over the last few years, not better. Will voting make that any better? I’d like to think so

Most people’s lives have got worse over the last few years, not better. Will voting make that any better? I’d like to think so.

As a woman whose father was beaten off the streets of Derry, along with many others there and elsewhere, to demand our right to choose who represents us in places of power, the act of staying at home and not having my say – even if the person I vote for is not elected – is mind-boggling to me.

This election is important. Big decisions about our lives are made in Westminster, whether we like it or not. I’ll be voting to send someone into those seats to speak for me. Will you?