We’re getting too used to accepting our lot in Northern Ireland. It’s coming up to 2 years without an active Stormont and we’re frustrated. I know I can’t speak for everyone – some people may feel some sense of warped joy at seeing our prospects and reputation nosediving – but I’m fairly certain that the majority will agree with me when I say that our current situation isn’t working. I’m passionate about politics (although that is severely tested sometimes living here) and when people ask me what I’m studying, I’m happy to talk about it. Surprisingly, they rarely ask “What do you think of Donald Trump?” or even “What do you think of Brexit?”. The first thing they say is: “Well, would you sort out Stormont!”. I’ve heard frustration in the voices of the teachers, classroom assistants, builders, plumbers, electricians, friends, family and, most of all, students that I’ve spoken to. Decisions aren’t being approved, waiting lists aren’t being dealt with and we have inadequate representation whilst the Brexit negotiations are ongoing. We deserve better, as the protesters said back in the summer.
But how do we go about getting better? You could say that this is what we voted for. Sinn Féin and the DUP received 56% of first preference votes in a campaign that didn’t give much hope for the two parties working together. We knew what we were getting ourselves into, didn’t we? Except the statistics ignore a crucial factor: neither Sinn Féin nor the DUP represented the biggest bloc in the Assembly Elections in 2017. A huge chunk of the electorate – 35.2% – didn’t vote. Although I accept that turnout was up by over 10% since 2016, and that’s great, it’s just a relative gain. We’re still left with one in three people not voting. I’m not advocating we make voting mandatory; I’m not comfortable with the idea of being ‘forced to be free’, as Rousseau put it.
Political satire cartoon depicting May’s relationship with the DUP. Artist Credit: Dakota Reid
What we really need is a culture of political engagement. It should be easy – we live in Northern Ireland! Although we like to think that we are defined by Tayto, Game of Thrones and good craic, we are more often associated with our (frustrating) politics. Tourists want to see murals, journalists want to see the border. They probably come and go without even trying our famous cheese and onion crisps. Politics, unfortunately, infiltrates our lives a lot more than it does in other countries. So, let’s start by voting when the next election comes around (and there’s never long to wait in Northern Ireland – May is your next opportunity). But it’s not just the ballot box where we can make a difference. If you’re fed up, do something about it. Write an article (if I can, anyone can!), sign a petition, tweet, go to a protest or email a politician. I know the last one can be a bit unrewarding at times. I’ve had little success with getting replies to emails and follow-up emails to Michelle and Arlene, but some politicians will reply or even offer a face-to-face meeting. Alternatively, you can attend a Q&A session arranged by the lovely Politics Society.
It’s time to turn frustration into action. We’re the future and that’s not just a right. It’s a responsibility too.