The Good Friday Agreement Generation: the Danger of Disaffection
With the latest Northern Ireland Assembly election only days away, Dr Peter McLoughlin looks at the growing disaffection among the so-called 'Good Friday Agreement generation' and examines what can be done to tackle the growing election cynicism among our youngest voters.
BBC Northern Ireland recently held a televised debate involving local politicians and what the broadcaster aptly termed ‘the Good Friday Agreement Generation’ – those born in Northern Ireland in the year that this peace accord was signed, 1998, and consequently eligible to vote for the first time in the forthcoming local Assembly election.
The questions that dominated the discussion were the same as those I often find my own students are eager to address in their tutorials – questions regarding sexual politics such as same sex marriage and abortion rights, and those relating to what are often termed ‘bread and butter’ issues – the state of the economy, job prospects, education, and so on. The former concern debates that are largely settled in other parts of the UK, whilst the latter might seem the staple of any election debate – except in Northern Ireland, where such issues have long been marginalised by tribal or ‘Orange and Green’ politics: the politics of ethno-religious identity, flags, parades, and the like.
However, while many of the questions asked by the young audience at the BBC debate were, at least by Northern Ireland standards, refreshingly practical, some of the political panel seemed eager to return to more traditional preoccupations; these concerns are also evident in their respective parties’ election banners. For example, as in the last Assembly election, the DUP has again warned of the supposed dangers of Sinn Féin gaining the role of First Minister, suggesting that unionists must vote for the DUP as the only way to avoid such an outcome.
There is, of course, no difference between the political powers of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister – the office Martin McGuinness currently holds – and which the DUP would likely obtain if Sinn Féin came first in Thursday’s election. This diarchy is one of the many sensible provisions that the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) established to ensure equality between the two communities in Northern Ireland. The DUP’s pitch on this issue is, therefore, essentially the traditional appeal for sectarian solidarity which has dictated politics on both sides of the communal divide since the formation of Northern Ireland.
However there should also be a concern – perhaps responding to the well-worn discourse of the dominant parties – that a number of young people in the BBC audience articulated ideas of disaffection and even despair that they could not see any party worth voting for in Northern Ireland. In this there is a danger that people here become victims of another tired political trope – albeit one not exclusive to Northern Ireland – which is encapsulated by the old adage: ‘What’s the point in voting? The government always wins.’
Ironically, the political system in Northern Ireland actually provides a strong corrective to such cynicism. Firstly, compared to Westminster’s majoritarian system, the method of election here, PR-STV, creates a much lower threshold for electing representatives of new political movements, or for smaller parties trying to expand their number of seats. Moreover, critics of the current system of power-sharing in Northern Ireland are misleading – and in fact discouraging of change – when they denounce what they term the ‘mandatory coalition’ established by the GFA, and correspondingly claim that this system is undemocratic.
There is, in fact, nothing in the GFA that formally obliges parties to share power. Nor does the Agreement necessarily require that both nationalists and unionists be represented in government. Instead, what it does provide is that all significant political groupings elected to the Assembly can – but are not obliged to – take seats in the governing Executive. Whatever its flaws, and no method of government is without fault, the current system has helped end the conflict here by creating truly representative democracy in Northern Ireland for the first time, where no major strand of opinion is excluded from political power.
The real danger, then, is that first time voters hear the critique and accept the problems associated with the current system, but respond by feeling nothing can be done to improve it. There is increasing evidence of such dejection; not least at the last Assembly election where nearly half of those eligible to vote chose not to exercise that right. The result was thus as the cynics predicted – ‘the government’ won again, as Sinn Féin and the DUP were returned as the dominant parties in the Executive. Had the almost 50% who did not vote instead done so, and rallied behind one or two of the smaller, non-sectarian parties, the outworking of the GFA system would instead have made such parties the mainstays of the Executive, and marginalised the influence of Sinn Féin and the DUP.
A Changing Political Landscape post Good Friday
Accordingly, my response to the students in my classes who suggest that nothing ever changes in Northern Ireland is “go and change it.” Use your vote. Vote for different parties, or join parties that you feel could be steered to more progressive ends with your input as a member. Or if you really think that none of those options will work, form your own party – something that is much easier to initiate for a generation raised in the age of social media mobilisation, and when a political breakthrough is more achievable with Northern Ireland’s PR-STV system than under electoral methods used elsewhere in the UK.
The same potential for change exists in this Thursday’s election where there will be a number of parties and candidates standing with views far more in line with those expressed by many young people in Northern Ireland today. However, recent evidence – not least in last year’s general election – suggests that those in the 18-24 bracket are the demographic most likely not to use their vote, thus allowing older generations with more entrenched views to vindicate the critics and the cynics.
On his recent visit to London, President Obama – a man whose political career tells of a steely opposition to such cynicism – spoke to an audience of young people from across the UK, specifically urging them to reject political pessimism. Responding directly to a question about our peace process, Obama articulated his usual positivity, encouraging the next political generation here to forge ‘a new identity that is about being from Northern Ireland as opposed to unionist or Sinn Féin, just deciding the country as a whole is more important than any particular faction or any particular flag.’
That effort should begin on Thursday. And if it needs a pitch, why not adapt the slogan of change used by Obama’s hopeful supporters in 2008 – ‘GFA Generation we can’.