As the Northern Ireland Council elections on May 18 draw closer, candidates and their teams are ramping up their efforts in seeking votes. For many, this involves door-to-door visits, attending community events, and engaging with voters on social media.
While contact with voters is crucial to getting out the vote and securing an election victory, the process itself is both rewarding and exhausting. After a recent long day of canvassing, I found myself reflecting on the various issues that were raised during these interactions and feeling both physically and mentally drained.
Nonetheless, the experience offered a unique perspective on the concerns of the community and the challenges faced by those seeking public office.
I spent the day in a nationalist area of Armagh City which held reminders of more unsettled times. A mural dedicated to the hunger strikers guarded the entrance to a social housing scheme, and down a non-descript terraced road, a small kerbside monument commemorated the death of a 19-year-old Official IRA volunteer Tony Hughes, shot dead by British soldiers in April 1973. Tricolors flew from buildings though they were outnumbered by the orange and white flags of the Armagh GAA team.
I was with Daniel Connolly, a candidate for the newly formed nationalist and pro-life party Aontú. He is a young teacher from a nearby village, Keady, and has strong American connections, having studied at Western Connecticut State University. He is married to a nurse from Oklahoma.
The reception was by and large friendly, although it was clear that residents were weary of the impasse in Stormont which meant that there had been no effective government in the North for over 14 months with the elected members (MLAs) still receiving their salaries.
One man was incandescent with rage, claiming – incorrectly as it turns out – that the northern MLAs had exclusive access to a Michelin-starred restaurant in Stormont. Frankly, I didn’t have the heart to contradict him and attempted to channel his anger into a positive commitment to vote for change.
The sentiment on the doors reflected the results of a survey by Ohio State University and YouGov which showed that more than two-thirds of Northern Irish citizens think that significant changes are needed to the power-sharing arrangements established by the Good Friday Agreement.
The danger, as far as the local elections are concerned, is that voter turnout is likely to be very low as a plague on all houses attitude was evident. They should “get back to work and stop robbing the people” was one typical comment that we heard.
The cost of living was by far the most common issue raised at the doors which came up time and time again. Many people expressed their concerns about rising prices, particularly for items such as food and energy, which are putting a strain on their finances and forcing them to cut back on essentials.
A typical northern Irish phrase was used to tell me that people were “scundered to their back teeth” with rising prices. This was contrasted with the £50,000 salary the MLAs are receiving for doing nothing.
The state of the National Health Service (NHS) in the North was also a major talking point for voters. Incidents of long waiting times, staff shortages, and underfunding were brought to our attention. It's clear that the NHS is in a mess and in dire need of attention.
To make matters worse, public sector strikes have been taking place across the province, with workers demanding better pay and conditions. The strikes have caused disruption to services, including healthcare and education, and have highlighted the growing discontent among those working in the public sector who account for over 27 percent of all those employed in Northern Ireland.
On a lighter note, during canvassing, I called to a house with a nurse's uniform drying outside on the washing line. It was a reminder of the important role that healthcare workers play in our society and the hard work they put in every day.
But two issues in particular generated lively discussion. The first showed a clear generational difference of opinion on one important topic.
Aontú’s pro-life stance was lauded by older voters who were critical of the support given by Sinn Féin and the SDLP to the British government’s decision to introduce terminations up to birth for a fetus with a disability. Younger female voters were not so supportive though, and on doorstep conversations, a woman’s right to choose was cited.
The other contentious issue related to the upcoming Coronation of King Charles. Based on the canvas, the jury is out among nationalist voters in relation to the announcement by First Minister-designate Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Féin to attend the event this weekend.
There was some surprise expressed at her decision given that as a republican party, Sinn Féin had never supported the concept of monarchy. “Not my king” was a comment from a middle-aged lady who did not support the decision but stopped short of directly criticizing O’Neill. “She probably had to do it,” was her grudging acceptance of the choice that she had made.
Others were not so forgiving, pointing out Charles was still colonel-in-chief of the Parachute Regiment and that she should have turned down the invitation. But on the other end of the spectrum, a young voter said she was fed up with “orange and green head count politics” and wanted the North to “move on” and join the 21st century.
Conventional politics and the here and now were exactly what Connolly concentrated on throughout the canvas, focusing on local issues including transport, potholes, and litter, but that wasn’t always possible. While people were only too willing to express an opinion on their doorsteps the real question is will they also express it at the ballot box on May 18?
Disillusionment with the political system might very well turn into apathy on polling day. But Connolly is upbeat after what he categorized as “very positive responses from residents who have long felt ignored by parties that have taken them for granted.”
His hope is that they will be enthused to vote for something “fresh, different, and hopeful.” We won’t have too long to wait to find out if his optimism is well-founded and translates into success on polling day.
*This column first appeared in the May 3 edition of the weekly Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral. Michael O'Dowd is brothers with Niall O'Dowd, founder of the Irish Voice and IrishCentral.