North’s electorate warned to watch out for dinosaurs

A high turnout is expected for Stormont vote, but will prehistory keep repeating?

 Sinn Féin’s  northern leader Michelle O’Neill (right)  launching  her election campaign on February 6th.  There were queues outside the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland in Belfast, as voters registered or checked that they were still on the register. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Sinn Féin’s northern leader Michelle O’Neill (right) launching her election campaign on February 6th. There were queues outside the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland in Belfast, as voters registered or checked that they were still on the register. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

 

Keith Hollywood stood beneath the stairs leading up to the electoral office rolling a cigarette between his thumb and forefinger, the paper just licked to seal in the tobacco.

“You’re not going to light that up in here, are you?” said the woman as she walked passed him and started to mount the stairs.

“No, no,” he reassured her. “Not at all.”

And then he went back to his thinking, head wrapped in a woolly hat, brow furrowed.

The election – hopes? Expectations?

“I dunno,” he said, “I dunno. I hope . . .” and his voice trailed off.

The deadline for registering to be able to vote in Northern Ireland’s assembly elections on March 2nd passed on Tuesday. Last week, at the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland in Belfast’s rebranded Cathedral Quarter, there were queues onto the footpath and even yesterday there was still a steady trickle of people dropping in.

They were checking that they were on the register, or hoping to still be able to get onto it (“Sorry, not this time,” they would be told by the official behind the glass screen), or filling in a form for an electoral identity card (“Can’t guarantee it’ll get there in time,” 38-year-old Hollywood was told, but he is hopeful it’ll be all right come the day).

“I’m sick of the other parties not doing much,” he said back down under the stairs, explaining why he was a People Before Profit supporter.

Blocks on change

Northern Ireland

His big concern is spending on mental health, and he doesn’t believe Theresa May when she proclaims her determination to do more on the issue. In terms of the Assembly, he wants the post-election landscape to be shaken up.

“Hopefully,” he says, “the DUP won’t be the top party.”

Would he prefer Sinn Féin, the second-largest grouping in the now dissolved assembly?

“No,” he said, adding, “I wouldn’t mind seeing the SDLP get a few more seats. Alliance too.”

There isn’t much sign of election fever in the centre of Belfast. Apart from a few straggler posters for Seán Burns that proclaim him to be cross-community Labour alternative.

“Don’t vote for dinosaurs!” they shriek, with a silhouette of a foot-stomping T-Rex with a red line drawn through it. “Demand LGBT equality and a woman’s right to choose.”

What many would see as dinosaur attitudes are far from extinct, as is clear from a glance at the North’s media, both traditional and social.

Smelling salts

Carol BlackUlster Unionist PartyArmaghBanbridgeCraigavon

“I doubt Mike Nesbitt’s even a unionist any more,” she fumed to the Belfast Telegraph, explaining her resignation from the party. While she had no doubt that unionists could “do business with our Catholic neighbours”, there were limits.

There was no shame, she said, in wanting to vote first for “our own people, for fellow Protestants and unionists – that doesn’t make me a bigot”.

Social media was having fun, meanwhile, at Sinn Féin posters demanding “Comhionnanas Anois!” (Equality Now!), with no shortage of loyalists pointing out on Twitter that the correct spelling of equality in Irish was “comhionannas”.

A trolley carrying boxes of postal vote forms arrives at the electoral office and is placed in a secure place. Between 2013 and last year, some 60,000 people disappeared from the electoral register, names that failed to respond to queries as to whether their entry on the register remained correct.

The surge since the election was confirmed at the end of January could be many from that cohort trying to ensure they are able to vote. No one really knows.

“All we can say,” said Virginia McVae, chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland, “is there has been a definite interest in our engagement with the public ensuring they can vote.”