This blog is not in the business of telling people how to vote. But after the utterly predictable responses by the DUP and Sinn Fein to the two governments’ announcement of new talks to try to restore Stormont (following priest Martin Magill’s anguished plea at Lyra McKee’s funeral last week for the politicians to take urgent action to work to that end), I believe it’s time to teach them a lesson. And today’s local elections, about the bread-and-butter issues that affect ordinary voters the most, are just the place to do it.
Of course the tribal politicians in Northern Ireland don’t ‘do’ bread-and-butter issues. How depressing it is to hear Arlene Foster’s wearily familiar warning about unionist divisions in these elections leading to the danger of strengthened republican demands for a Border Poll. And how dispiriting to hear Mary Lou McDonald and other senior Sinn Fein figures repeating endlessly that ‘now is the time to talk about unity.’ The ultimate hypocrisy is Sinn Fein’s demand, failing agreement with the DUP, for the Westminster parliament to legislate for their so-called ‘equality’ agenda – abortion rights, same sex marriage and an Irish Language Act – when they absolutely refuse to take their seats in that legislature.
Today is not the time to talk about Irish unity or Brexit or any of the other major obstacles to peace and political progress in the North. Today is the time to talk about community relations and poverty and planning and the environment and housing and health and education and all the other issues that local authorities are struggling with (even though in many of these areas they have few if any powers) in the absence of a devolved Executive and Assembly.
Even when they were in power for 10 years the two big tribal parties failed to pump the money required for health, education and job training into Northern Ireland’s poorest urban areas, typified by the Creggan in Derry where Lyra McKee was shot dead. As Eamonn McCann has pointed out, 54% of people in that area have low or no qualifications. 40% of them don’t even bother to register for welfare benefits. They are ‘literally a lost generation’, says McCann, young no-hopers who are perfect cannon fodder for the murderous fanatics of dissident republicanism.¹
So if you’re going out to cast your vote in the local elections today, show your disgust at the inertia and bloody-mindedness of the two main parties and give your vote to another party. If I were still in the North, as an old social democrat and moderate nationalist I might be voting SDLP. However, if you are protesting against the stalemate of tribal politics, I suggest you give your vote to Alliance or People before Profit (depending on your ideological preference), or even to the Greens.
As climate change and environmental sustainability start to dominate so much political debate internationally, the tiny Green Party in the North is getting more ambitious. They already have two out of 90 members of the suspended Northern Ireland Assembly (a higher proportion than the Southern Greens, with two out of 158 TDs). They only have four local council representatives at the moment, but are putting up 26 candidates, with the aim of tripling their number of seats. In West Belfast they are running Ireland’s first transgender candidate, Ellen Murray.
The Green Party leader, Clare Bailey, shows a face of Northern Ireland which we in the South rarely see. Born into a ‘two up, two down’ house in Belfast’s Falls Road, her family moved to Antrim when she was seven. In 1981 – a year when the republican prison hunger strike pushed the North close to civil war – she and her sister were among the first entry of 28 pupils to the North’s first integrated secondary school, Lagan College, on the outskirts of east Belfast, requiring a three hour round trip every day. She jokes about being ‘almost bilingual’ because of the amount of time she spent accompanying her mother as part of a reconciliation group taking children from divided and deprived areas to Holland to get a holiday away from the Troubles.
She strongly rejects accusations that the Greens, with their strongest bases in South Belfast (which she represents in the Assembly) and North Down, are a middle-class party. She tells of canvassing in Belfast’s loyalist housing estates in the Village and Belvoir, and seeing a 5% rise in the Green vote in the latter after a particularly effective canvass in 2017. She says that as somebody who started life with no bathroom and an outside toilet, and who had been homeless and a single parent, she identifies strongly with disadvantaged people and passionately wants to represent them. ‘The Green Party is not just about climate issues; the environment to me is also about the well-being of communities. It is about creating a space for young people, in particular, to develop and expand into a new kind of politics that is relevant to their needs. Young people take seriously the International Panel on Climate Change’s dire warnings about catastrophic climate change in 11 years. We should be future-proofing our social and economic policies rather than bringing up the bogeyman of Irish unity and other historic obsessions at every election.’
Bailey emphasises her party’s commitment to community development. She sees it as a sign of hope that Belfast City Council has recently appointed a Resilience Commissioner to plan for future crises in areas like over-stretched infrastructure, climate change and cyber-security, which the city – in common with cities throughout the world – will face in coming years. She identifies problems like lack of clean water, green spaces and good schools in the city at a time when the council is trying to attract back tens of thousands of people who left it largely because of the Troubles. Air pollution is another issue she highlights, with childhood asthma a growing problem. She talks about the lack of action to deal with the mental health crisis which has seen more people committing suicide in the 21 years since the Good Friday Agreement than in the 30 years of the Troubles.
As a former campaigner for abortion rights, she is also strong on equality and human rights issues. The Greens were campaigning for marriage equality before Sinn Fein discovered it as an issue; they were joined by that party in introducing the first Assembly motion calling for such equality in 2012. When out canvassing Bailey says she finds a surprisingly high proportion of DUP voters who are in favour of both abortion rights and gay marriage.
She believes in North-South cooperation in the environmental area. ‘If we’ve got 11 years before we arrive at the point of irreversible climate change, then I don’t care about Brexit or Border Polls or people’s constitutional identity because change is coming and it’s not coming in the way they think. It’s called climate catastrophe and it will force us to renegotiate all our relationships on this island and in these islands. Because those floods and storms and food and pollution crises are not going to stop at any border.’
This impressive youngish woman – she is in her forties – could be one of the bright new faces of politics in Northern Ireland. In her office I met two equally impressive young Green candidates in the Belfast elections, Áine Groogan and Brian Smyth. If you live in Belfast, give them a vote today. Vote for the future, not the past.
¹ ‘Everybody knew there was going to be bother’, Irish Times, 27 April