Never before have so many parties pursued the people of Northern Ireland looking for votes. The election, of course, is to fill the 108 seats of the new Northern assembly. Balloting takes place June 25. In all, 18 parties are seeking places in the new administration, which is being set up as part of the Good Friday-signed and May 22-approved Belfast Agreement. There are also 11 independents running.
It is a far cry from the old days of Northern Ireland politics, when Unionists had only the Nationalist Party, and the Northern Ireland Labor Party to contend with. Now, there are actually more Unionist parties – five of them – than there were parties of all shades of political opinion through much of Northern Ireland’s history. This in itself is one indication of the extent of the change that has overtaken politics in that troubled place. The old political molds have been broken for good. It is now possible, for example, to imagine a Nationalist voter actually choosing a Unionist Party candidate for his or her second-preference vote on the grounds that the UUP is pro-Agreement. Such a thing as cross-over voting between Unionists and Nationalists would have been unthinkable a few years ago, with or without proportional representation.
Unfortunately, the new range of choices does not seem to be inspiring the electorate. Apathy reigns. It appears that the Northern Ireland electorate is simply suffering from a case of political exhaustion.
This should surprise no one. In two years, Northerners have been through five elections. Since June 1996, they have had the Forum elections, local elections, the British general election, the referendum on the Belfast Agreement, and now, the elections for the assembly. Even a population in love with politics is bound to grow weary of the endless canvassing, and the continuous stream of leaflets coming through the letter box.
Yet, the election coming up is possibly one of the most important in the history of the state. It will determine whether Belfast Agreement can be made to work. In that sense, the agreement represented more of an aspiration for a settlement than the practical reality of one. The June 25 vote will be about real, party politics. As such it should present a fascinating guide to the new political landscape that is currently being shaped.
There will be two main sets of contests. The first will be between those parties – the overwhelmingly majority – who are pro-agreement, and those who are opposed to it: Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party and Bob McCartney’s United Kingdom Unionist Party.
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The other contest will be within the two communities, where the various shades of Unionism and Nationalism will be struggling for political dominance.
The first contest is the most crucial. The smaller the vote for the anti-agreement parties, the less confident they will be about adopting wrecking tactics. The bigger the vote for the pro-agreement lobby, then the more certain its backers will be about setting out on the new course, which was heralded on May 24 by the massive