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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

What if They Give an Election and No One Comes?

Eamon Lynch • 29 January 2003

Since Northern Ireland's new electoral register was released last month, Sinn Fein has been in high dudgeon, claiming that 200,000 voters have "disappeared," including many in the Belfast constituency of Gerry Adams. These wouldn't be the first folks disappeared in Gerry's world, but it begs the question: can a person who never really existed disappear?

This register is the first since the introduction of measures designed to combat the rampant fraud that sees elections decided by the votes of the dearly departed. And since lacking a pulse is no barrier to voting, it's unsurprising that emigrants continue to vote also. Now, before Rita O'Hare unsheathes her pen to refute this charge, I hasten to add that while I have not cast a vote since 1993, that vote has not been idle. I'm sure Rita joins me in commending civic-minded parties who ensure every vote is counted, legally cast or not.

Two new regulations are the crux of the row: those coming of age must now register to vote instead of being enrolled by a parent, and every voter must now produce a photo ID. This poses a problem for voters who don't actually exist, who were "created" with bogus documents in more lenient days. The inability of these folks to respond to inquiries from the Electoral Office helps explain why so many names were struck from the new register. Doubtless there are some who have been wrongly struck from the rolls, but the opportunity still exists for all those who are real to be registered before the scheduled elections in May.

Adams rightly rejects any suggestion that the rule changes are aimed solely at his constituents. The total wiped from the West Belfast register isn't substantially greater than in East Belfast. What doesn't hold water is his claim that this is all a ploy to undermine the electoral growth of Sinn Fein. Yet it's understandable that Adams should find comfort in a theory that can neither be proved nor disproved. The alternative might be a little too unsettling.

The 2001 census identified 1,260,029 eligible voters, but the new electoral register lists only 1,072,346. Sinn Fein says 50,000 first-time voters are missing too. "In other words, within six months over 200,000 voters have disappeared," cried the Republican News. This is a neat sleight of hand. The census indeed tells us how many citizens are eligible to vote but indicates only a potential voter. An electoral register to which people must add their name offers a more relevant statistic: how many want to vote.

While it suits Sinn Fein to dust off the subterfuge theory for another airing, there may be a reasonable explanation for a decline in voter registration, especially among first-time voters. Given the thuggery and barely disguised bigotry that passes for political life, isn't it possible that many might simply opt out of the entire process and choose not to register? Who can blame them for growing weary of a farce that delivers only demands for their vote lest there be a return to bloodshed?

In an effort to add some rhetorical meat to an otherwise slender argument, Adams said the new registration law most hurts disadvantaged neighborhoods like West Belfast, where he estimates 20 percent of the electorate has been struck off. This neighborly concern may face a test in court: Adams's unionist constituents are claiming his absence from Westminster disenfranchises them and prevents their interests from being properly represented.

Of course, having your candidate lose -- as unionists typically do in West Belfast -- ensures your views will not be represented. But views and interests are not the same, and unionists say neither is represented if your MP refuses to attend parliament. This is a partisan argument, but not entirely without merit. After all, refusals to swear allegiance to the crown at Westminster ring hollow if you are on Her Majesty's payroll at Stormont.

Ultimately, Sinn Fein may not need to fret over disappeared, or even disenchanted, voters. The party casts a wider electoral net today than ever before, a fact evidenced by poll victories and a post-cease-fire influx of first-timers and moderate nationalists. Tossing red meat to the base is gradually less important too because the base just ain't as green as it once was. Hence the looming disbandment of the IRA won't trouble supporters as it might have back when those who manned the party barricades paid a heavy price for doing so. The grassroots is now conditioned to expect anything and concede everything, including the aspiration to unity in their lifetime.

Regardless, the fact that so many are obviously choosing not to register to vote -- for whatever reason -- constitutes a damning indictment of politics in Northern Ireland. Voting may be a civic responsibility but sometimes exercising the right not to vote sends a much clearer message.

 

This article also appeared in the Jan 29, 03 edition of the Irish Echo and is carried here at the request of the author.

 

 

 

 

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Index: Current Articles



3 February 2003

 

Other Articles From This Issue:

 

A Carefully Crafted Message - Little Revealed, A Lot Concealed
John Meehan

 

What if They Give an Election and No One Comes?
Eamon Lynch

 

The Conscience of a King
Seaghán Ó Murchú

 

Lost Honour, Lost Cause
Proinsias O'Loinsaigh

 

Bogota Diary
Jimmy Sands

 

The Tongue
Anthony McIntyre

 

Glossary of Occupation

Paul de Rooij

 

26 January 2003

 

Drugadair and the Drugadiers
Anthony McIntyre

 

Thesis Antithesis
Paul Dunne

 

The Hungry Continent
Terence McMenamin

 

Thanksgiving
Sean Torain

 

Do They Talk to You?
Annie Higgins

 

Fight Against American Hyper-Imperialism and Oppression

Sean Matthews

 

The Letters page has been updated.

 

 

 

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