THE BLOG

Forget Ukip, Northern Ireland Has the Most to Gain in the European Elections

26/03/2014 14:42 GMT | Updated 25/05/2014 10:59 BST

Who really cares about the European elections? Let's face it, they can be pretty irrelevant. Just by mentioning them, some people may already have lost interest in this article.

They are secondary to domestic elections. Some parties use the European Parliament solely as a training ground for youngsters or a graveyard for troublemakers and has-beens. They are often used merely as practice for national elections while an apathetic public make protest votes or avoid voting altogether. That is why minority parties -UKIP and the BNP- often achieve relative success.

The statistics concur. Across Europe, motivation to vote in the EU's popularity contest is on a downward spiral. Voter turnout plummeted from 62% in 1979 to 43% in 2009 and even then it was padded by compulsory voting in Belgium and Luxembourg. In 2009, UK turnout was just 34.7%. It's pretty clear: outside of political boffins, or those with vested interests in political parties, few people care about the European elections.

Although important, European politics can be tedious and detached from everyday life. The eurozone crisis highlighted continent-wide problems but didn't explain how continent-wide decisions made in the European Parliament influence our daily lives. Even the media rarely focus on Brussels; their spotlight remains on national governments. Put simply, there has never really been much at stake in European elections. They never really change much. They haven't really mattered.

Until now.

This time, it's different. Before the election on May 22nd, mainstream parties will try to stave off a co-ordinated assault from Nigel Farage's UKIP while Scottish politicians mercilessly savage each other before September's independence referendum. Yet nowhere is more at stake than in one of the EU's outermost regions: Northern Ireland.

For Northern Ireland, the election could mark the dawn of a new era of peace or it could keep the country shackled in the doldrums of post-conflict attrition.

Northern Irish politics languishes in dire straits. Disengagement and disenfranchisement are rampant. Pervasive 'old-man' politics and perpetual bickering have left vast swathes of the population demoralised. Too many unfulfilled promises and empty words have battered an almost insurmountable cynicism into the people. Even the once-promising Alliance Party, formed in 1970 to heal bitter divisions, has failed spectacularly.

Peace agreement or not, it's still conflict politics. Power-sharing is a veneer. The handshakes are supercilious. It's still 'us and them'. It's still tribal. It's still stuck in the past. Society is changing but politics remains stagnant. Today, anyone who started primary school a week after the paramilitary ceasefires in August 1994 is of voting age. They are the first generation to grow up in a society dominated by peace, not conflict. They need representation for the 21st Century but Northern Ireland's political parties are so busy dragging the baggage of the 20th Century behind them that they can't see the 21st in front of them.

Until now.

Now there is a bastion of hope. It comes in the form of NI21, Northern Ireland's newest political party. While the name initially conjures images of a trunk road or a potent strain of bird flu, this is a party determined to leave the poisonous past behind.

Since being formed last year, NI21 has espoused commitment to change. They eschew the traditional labels that accompany politics in the six counties. They want to move beyond sterile sectarianism and normalise Northern Irish politics.

NI21 represents those who are sick of religion-infused sectarianism. It represents those for whom the importance of the constitutional question has not ceased, but hatred of 'the other' has. It represents those who want peacetime politics, not siege mentality decision-making. It represents those reluctant to define themselves purely by three colours on a piece of cloth. It represents those who feel that the Troubles ended with no heroes and no villains, just casualties.

NI21 cannot normalise politics overnight or even before the European election. The odds of winning a European seat are firmly stacked against them. They don't have an army of elected politicians to cultivate support. This isn't a well-oiled political machine.

In any case, Northern Ireland contests just three European seats, despite having a population of over 1.8 million. This is because the division of European Parliament seats is decided by degressive proportionality. Malta and Luxembourg, with respective populations of 418,000 and 531,000, are both represented by six MEPs; Northern Ireland only gets three as it is a region of the UK and not an independent EU member state.

Regardless of the seat allocation, the European election is crucial. With riotous flag protests, simmering dissent and brinkmanship that belongs in the past, Northern Ireland isn't far from a dangerous regression. This isn't a practice run for the domestic elections. There is more at stake. Even with poor voter turnout, this election matters.

It is NI21's first electoral challenge. It is a challenge to see if positive rhetoric can be reinforced with positive action. Even without winning a seat, a strong showing would signal that Northern Ireland is ready to emerge from the embittered shadow of the last 40 years.

That's why the challenge for NI21 is actually a challenge for Northern Ireland. It is a challenge to see if society is brave enough to look to the future or still imprisoned by politics of the past. It is a challenge to see if a silent majority can become the vocal majority. It is a challenge to see if hope can finally be turned into change. A win for NI21 would constitute change for the better.

A win for NI21 would be a win for Northern Ireland.