The ‘We Deserve Better’ protests’ have come and gone. As I write, Northern Ireland has amassed 591 days without a government and there’s no sign of that changing any time soon. In the wake of reasonably well attended protests in 13 towns, here are 4 thoughts, in no particular order.
Firstly, with the Belfast protest cancelled (due to the fire in Bank Buildings) I attended the protest at the McKee clock in Bangor. I was carrying a large placard (see pic). This sort of thing makes you stand out, so I was interviewed by a reporter from Sky News.
We had a meandering conversation I doubt they broadcast, but at one point the reporter said something along the lines of “Surely both main parties are simply playing a game, they’re waiting for Brexit and nothing is going to happen until then.” Presumably, he was trying to prompt me to defend the protests by suggesting they would achieve little.
I agreed with him. I can’t see a government being restored this side of Easter 2019, and even then… However, that was never the point. We do want a government. Now. But the protest was also about saying to the two main parties, abandoning the work you signed up to is not acceptable. Playing the game is not acceptable. Allowing the country you claim to care about to disintegrate around you, is not acceptable. We might be in the minority, but we will not forget how you put your own needs first and have abjectly failed to lead.
Have the protests changed anything? Right now, probably very little, but who knows? Large movements of both people and ideas always begin with small groups of activists. I don’t believe we’re anywhere close to a ‘tipping point’, but perhaps a small step has been taken towards the middle of the see-saw.
Secondly, the other notable part of my (otherwise fairly uninteresting) interview was when the reporter expressed surprise at how many people had turned up. (I don’t think there was an official count, but I’ll say 800-1000 as a ball park.) Here I begged to differ. I thought a thousand (or so) people in Bangor was fantastic, but given it was all kicked off by someone not of celebrity status, standing in a field in Fermanagh saying ‘Let’s do something!’, imagine what the numbers could have been if there had been a marketing campaign, financial backing, some full time staff and hadn’t been held in holiday season. Lots of people didn’t know about the protests until after they happened. There is a well of resentment out there we’ve only just begun to tap into.
Thirdly, the DUP marked the day launching their ‘Sinn Fein – Time to end the boycott’ campaign. This, from the party who are always quick to point out Sinn Fein’s selective telling of history, is nothing less than staggeringly dishonest.
Finally, while trying to be positive going forward, we need to face the harsh reality; at the last Assembly elections, 35% of the electorate didn’t vote. That’s one out of every three people didn’t get involved. That said, the turnout was up over 9% from the previous Assembly election, so it was certainly an improvement. Less positive, however, was that nearly 28% of the vote went to Sinn Fein, and a fraction over 28% of the vote went to the DUP. I have no problem with people voting for these parties, but we shouldn’t forget, it was because of their inability to agree and govern that there was an election to begin with. It was hardly a shock when they still couldn’t get it together after the 2017 election. This leads me to the uncomfortable position that we certainly need better, but on the whole we, as an electorate, have inflicted this stalemate on ourselves and deserve what we get.