Badly in need of democrats

By Jude Collins

T hey say the Scottish independence movement is having success on at least one front: they’re rounding up people who haven’t bothered to register to vote or who normally wouldn’t vote. Having found them, they’re hopeful they can persuade them to vote Yes in September.
It’s expected that voter turn-out on September 18 will be spectacular – over 80 per cent. Or put it another way: on a matter which affects Scotland’s future in a root-and-branch way, around one-fifth of people won’t bother voting. And only 20 per cent not voting will be considered an amazingly good turn-out.
Here, where politics confronts us in one form or another at every turn, voter numbers are slipping. In 1998, the Assembly elections had a 69.9 per cent turn-out; in 2003 it had gone down to 63.9 per cent; in 2007 it was 62.9 per cent; and in the last general election here the turnout was 57.6 per cent. You can see how voter apathy is deepening.
One of the interesting things about the rise of Sinn Féin electorally in the north was that they did so not solely by winning over SDLP voters, as might have been expected – the SDLP turn-out figures remained more or less the same. Sinn Féin passed their nationalist opponents by getting people who wouldn’t normally vote to come out on polling day.
It’s an odd phenomenon, the stay-at-homes. Traditionally, there are a number of groups who can’t summon up the will to make the walk from their armchair to the local polling station and scratch their X on the ballot paper. There’s the young: when you’re eighteen or in your early twenties, you’ve got at least three more important things to do: chasing girls/boys, consuming alcohol/drugs and/or listening to very loud music. Then there’s the poor. They stay at home because they don’t see the point. Whoever’s in power, they figure, it won’t matter, their lives will stay the threadbare same.
Ironically, another sizeable group who give voting a miss because they think it’ll change nothing are the comfortably-off, what has come to be termed the Prod-in-the-Garden Centre – perhaps to be joined by the Taig-in-the-Garden-Centre. This group would rather check out anti-slug pellets for their roses than get their hands dirty voting.
It’s an unfortunate state of affairs, it’s observable throughout much of the Western world and it’s something that renders the notion of democracy laughable. You may think the state of Northern Ireland, having been manufactured under threat of violence, isn’t a democratic place anyway, but when you then leave it to a minority of the voting population to call the shots, you’re adding a further layer of non-democracy.
There are two ways we can solve this problem: the carrot and the stick. That is, we can educate non-voters, show them how important every vote is (ask Michelle Gildernew – four votes – remember?). Or we could take the path chosen by countries like Australia, Austria, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, Turkey and over 20 others. In those countries they penalise people in different ways if they fail to show up at the polling booth on voting day. They do so because, as with wearing a seat-belt or making sure you’re sober when you sit behind a steering wheel, they think it’s too important a matter to be left to the whim of the individual. And if people say: “But I want to vote for none of the above – they’re all a shower!” then it’s up to that individual to set up his/her own party or run as an independent and vote for themselves.
Not that voting every few years means that your democratic duties are completed. If you employ someone, pay their wages, you make good and sure they put their back into their work, step up to the mark, and you don’t wait four or five years before you voice your complaints. That’s what we all should be doing.
In a jurisdiction where the deputy First Minister extends the hand of reconciliation to the head of a state which has inflicted centuries of suffering on Ireland, while at the same time the First Minister of that jurisdiction and the dolly-mixture assortment that is current unionism devote their time to pressuring the Parades Commission to dance to their tune, there’s a massive need for active democrats. A need for people who will raise their voice and remind their servants (and since we pay politicians, they’re our servants) that we’re not interesting in going back to Ballygobackwards again. Been there, done that. We need a better tomorrow and we expect them to deliver it.

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