Thursday, 24 April 2014

Spoilt for Choice

My friend and occasional colleague, Alex Kane, makes an interesting contribution to a debate which is exercising the minds of more and more potential electors at the moment: whether or not to vote in next month’s elections.

Alex has already decided: he won’t. He sees no point. He doesn’t believe that casting his vote in the local government and European parliament polls would make any difference and he’s not prepared to endorse what he calls “the travesty that passes itself off as government here”.

That is his right and his choice. But it is a fairly bleak pronouncement on the state of politics here. I can almost imagine Alex donning a black cap before penning his judgement.

I, on the other hand, will exercise my franchise in both next month’s contests. Voting is a privilege that people have fought for and won.

“Democracy”, Winston Churchill said, “is the worst form of government, except for all those others that have been tried.” Our assembly has been doing its utmost to live down to that expectation. No one, not even its fiercest advocate, would suggest that it has been a rip-roaring success. Ripping – occasionally; roaring – frequently; but successful? Hardly. Its mere survival is often cited as its greatest achievement.

But, like it or loathe it, it is all we have. And using our votes – even by spoiling them – is the only democratic recourse left for people who want to bring about change. (They also, of course, have the option of standing as candidates, as I myself did unsuccessfully in 2010, although few will do so.)

Alex is correct to state that there are many people who yearn for something more from our politicians. The ‘bread and butter’ part is easy; we all want more job creation, greater prosperity, improved health care, quality education, more effective services and better infrastructure.

It’s trickier, though, when we consider the constitutional issue. For some a united Ireland is the ultimate goal; for others that is anathema. And it becomes more complicated when we toss in related matters like the past, parades, flags and emblems – issues that will have seasoned envoys hurrying to catch the first plane out of here. They, at least, have that option.     

For many of us who have to stay, there’s the faint hope that something better might be in the offing. Alex argues that change might come about “when the Assembly, and councils and MPs are clearly seen not to represent a majority of the electorate”.

If – as Alex speculates might be the case – more than half the electorate decide not to vote, that would be a crushing indictment of the parties here. It would, he suggests, weaken the parties, strip them of authority and undermine their claim to speak on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland. But he’s wrong to think that the parties – certainly the bigger ones – would be weakened or stripped of their authority in such circumstances.

Voters staying at home would actually suit some parties, especially those with the best-organized political machines. And a low turn-out would be dismissed as “apathy”, with blame placed on members of the public who “couldn’t be bothered” to vote. I do not believe that a low turn-out would change parties’ behaviour dramatically.

A spoilt vote is different. A spoilt vote is a statement. To get up off one’s backside, leave the telly, go to a polling station and cast a ballot cannot be dismissed as apathy. It delivers a more withering verdict on parties and candidates than abstaining, and is a much more effective protest.

I am certainly not advocating that people should spoil their votes. Every elector has the right to decide what to do with his or her ballot paper. If there are candidates or parties they like, or whose policies they admire, I urge voters to give them their support. The priority is to be counted.

For the whole electorate here, voting is a privilege and a right. For some it is a responsibility. In other parts of the world, though, it is only an aspiration.

A vote is precious. Use it.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Wheel of Fortune

Final preparations are being made to ‘the Derry Eye’, the big Ferris wheel which will briefly dominate the Ebrington skyline and offer a new perspective on the UK’s first city of culture. From Friday, for a £3 fee and from140 feet up, the less faint-hearted will get an exhilarating view of one of the most historic cities in Ireland. (You can, by the way, get a similarly stunning view for free, on terra firma, at nearby Gobnascale).

The Giant Wheel will no doubt be a big draw for locals and visitors alike, but one wonders whether it is an attraction or a distraction. The same site hosted a circus recently and last Christmas it was home to a skating rink. As the ancient Roman empire declined, the satirist, Juvenal, observed that ‘panem et circenses’ – bread and circuses – were the last remaining aspirations of a once great population. Has Derry embarked on a similar path?

It is ironic that the Giant Wheel is being erected on a site managed by Ilex – the urban regeneration company aiming to deliver the “best regeneration any city on these islands has ever seen”. Ilex deserves some praise for Derry’s physical renewal but its economic impact – in admittedly challenging times – has been far less obvious.

April’s new unemployment statistics brought further evidence of how badly Derry lags behind the rest of Northern Ireland. The number claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance in the Strand ward finally crashed through the 20% barrier. A frightening 20.1% of its working age population are now ‘signing on’. The Diamond follows close on its tail – at 19.1%.

Derry has five of the top seven highest claimant rates for council wards. The claimant count for the council area as a whole is 8.4% – well above the Northern Ireland average of 4.9% and far ahead of Northern Ireland’s lowest, Castlereagh (2.9%). Factor in an inactivity rate well above the Northern Ireland average and we are witnessing a deepening economic crisis. Yet the talk almost everywhere else, it seems, is of “recovery”.

Even allowing for the redundancies announced in Belfast on Tuesday, it was still a good day for the city. The software company, Vello Systems, confirmed that 15 jobs were to go, but the IT firm, Novosco, revealed that it was creating 50 new posts at its offices in the Belfast Science Park – a net gain for the city of almost three dozen high value jobs. It would be churlish to begrudge them.

On the very same day, though, there was more bad news for Derry. While Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster – looking radiant in pink – beamed proudly on a tour of Novosco’s offices at Queen’s Island, staff at two workplaces in the second city were bracing themselves for the worst. Nine posts are going at City of Derry Airport (how’s that for a vote of confidence in the region’s economic future?) and another 20 are in danger at the Lough Swilly bus company.

I would love to take our MLAs – all 108 of them – cram them into the Giant Wheel’s pods, and make them spin round and round until they realise their duty to the people living in the streets below. It would provide welcome respite from the current grind of canvassing and, in any case, they seem to enjoy going round in circles. They’re certainly comfortable surviving in their own wee bubbles, cut off from the rest of the world.

The local councillor who was attacked by a dog while canvassing this week should get used to the experience. It’ll be surprising if more politicians aren’t savaged on doorsteps over the next month or so. Cave canem. Beware of the dog. And beware of the voter.