Northern election: brave souls challenge dominance of big five

Minor party candidates and Independents offer wide spectrum of choice for voters

 

Northern Ireland is dominated by tribal politics, but smaller parties and independents continue to stand for election in the hope of a breakthrough in constituencies still divided along Orange and Green lines.

A seismic shift from the main unionist and nationalist offerings might not be realistic on March 2nd, but in recent years there have been signals of changes in attitude among the electorate.

In the May 2016 election, People Before Profit (PBP) took Assembly seats in the North for the first time with Gerry Carroll in Belfast West and Eamonn McCann in Foyle, while the Green Party doubled its representation to two when deputy leader Clare Bailey was elected in Belfast South to Stormont, alongside leader Steven Agnew, who has represented North Down since 2011.

The big five players in the North remain the DUP, Sinn Féin, the UUP, the SDLP and Alliance, yet independent candidates and smaller parties are still out in communities knocking doors and asking the public for support.

When voters in Northern Ireland go to the polls on Thursday, there will be 228 candidates on the ballot papers – 138 from the main five parties, and 90 from the smaller parties or independents.

The Green Party – the only party with a 50/50 gender balance – is running 18 candidates, while the TUV has 14 people in the race and the Conservatives in Northern Ireland are standing 13.

PBP have seven candidates, the Workers' Party five, Labour Alternative four, CISTA (Independent Social Thought Alliance formerly known as Cannabis Is Safer Than Alcohol) and the PUP each have three candidates. Ukip has one person running and there are 22 Independents, including former justice minister Claire Sugden in East Derry.

Tighter competition

Voters will be electing 90 members, a reduction from 108, so with tighter competition, the question raised is what motivates the minor parties and independents to throw their hat in the ring.

Some would argue their efforts are wasted, but in a democracy they are entitled to stand and offer the electorate a choice. This they do, despite the odds stacked against them.

The Workers’ Party has just two councillors in the Republic and no elected representatives in the North, but its members are out on the canvass in five constituencies, perhaps with a view to building toward a council seat for its brightest hope, Gemma Weir in Belfast North.

A spokesman says the party is about “conviction politics” and believe there is a need for radical change toward a “socialist, secular and anti-sectarian society”.

Northern voters have tended not to go for smaller parties and independents but once again they are in mix, including a comedy-inspired candidate in Belfast East.

Stormont a joke

Jordy McKeag, an 18-year-old trainee joiner from the Shankill area, is standing as a protest candidate over the DUP’s handling of the RHI scheme now, known as the ‘cash for ash’ scandal, which precipitated this week’s election.

The former Orange bandsman, whose election agent is Cormac MacDiarmada from the Notorious Barrick Boys online satire group, has pledged to put his £48,000 salary on a 1000/1 accumulator and give any money he wins on the horses to charity.

Mr MacDiarmada says “if Stormont is a joke, it may as well be funny” and that while he acknowledges McKeag’s candidacy is for “the craic”, it is also about sending a message to Stormont that government has “failed people like Jordy”.

In West Tyrone, Susan-Anne White, who likes to be known as Mrs White, is standing for election again. She does not believe women should wear trousers or breastfeed in public, would like to see rock music banned and has called for homosexuality to criminalised.

Last year she came second last in the constituency out of 18 candidates, receiving just 86 votes, but this was nearly double the 44 votes the Conservative Party candidate took in the area.

Secretary of State James Brokenshire has been criticised for canvassing with its candidates under campaign slogans such as ‘Peace Process? Fleece Process’ but the Tories have no elected representation in Northern Ireland and are unlikely to ever be a serious challenger for votes.

There is an ongoing battle between the British Labour Party and its supporters in the North, who are not currently permitted to stand for election.

Indeed, a Labour Alternative candidate Donal Ó Cófaigh and his election agent Adam Gannon – members of the Northern Ireland branch of the British Labour Party – have been expelled by the central leadership for what they described as “the ‘crime’ of providing an anti-sectarian, left-wing alternative for the people of Fermanagh & South Tyrone in this election”.

A full list of candidates can be viewed on the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland website for those interested in checking out the smaller parties and independents, who struggle to get significant media coverage.

In 2017, their chances of winning an Assembly seat are slim but perhaps in years to come this could change and the rise of the non-tribal parties and bread and butter issues will be the big talking points of election campaigns rather than the ‘Orange and Green’ that dominates the political landscape now.

Strategic voting

On using one’s vote wisely, Strategem NI political consultant Quintin Oliver claims “the electorate is not all that sophisticated in its understanding of Proportional Representation (PR)”.

“A lot of voters will just plump, it’s called, after voting for their party and that means that someone else decides who else gets in apart from their party,” he said.

“Some don’t understand the importance of voting within their party if there are three candidates to vote across the three, unless they particularly dislike one of them, and there is universal lack of awareness that voting for small parties doesn’t waste a vote.

“It actually lets your vote last longer.”

Mr Oliver explains that he once had a vote “go through six lives of a count of 23 candidates” as it was eliminated at the bottom with candidates not staying in the race with enough first preferences or surplussed at the top after a candidate had been successfully elected.

“I was able to influence six times down the list,” he said. “But I am afraid the education work done by the Electoral Commission is good but not extensive enough and the education work done in schools is frankly very poor.”

PUP communications director Sophie Long said the PR single transferable vote system had many advantages but one disadvantage was its complexity and that many people wrongly believed giving a smaller party a first preference is a wasted vote.

“We want voters to know how the system works, so that their preferences are best translated into votes,” she said. “If voters would like to see new faces and new approaches in Stormont, they should give smaller parties first preference.

“If those parties are knocked out at the first count, the full vote transfers to the second preference. This is the best way to vote for change while still using your vote optimally.”

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