Emma DeSouza, an Independent candidate in the recent Assembly elections, offers her post-election opinion on what the results suggest about the shifting political sands in the North – and what lessons the main parties could take away from them.

THE recent Assembly elections have been heralded as historic, with Northern Ireland earning its first-ever Nationalist First Minister – but the real story is that of the wholly metamorphosing Northern Ireland (NI), the demonstrably nuanced NI, and the steady bloom of the middle-ground who show no sign of tapering off.

Having just staked my flag atop the near-insurmountable summit of running as an independent candidate in NI’s largest and most hotly contested constituency, I’ve come away with a new perspective on the shifting political ground we now find ourselves traversing.

From day-one, it’s been clear that the prevailing narrative – that people in the North can be divided to fit neatly into two boxes, either ‘Green’ or ‘Orange’ – is both desperately and deliberately detached from reality.

Within the hundreds of conversations I shared with voters throughout my campaign existed rich nuance and diversity – and virtually none of the talking points parroted by the political leaders historically responsible for the status quo.

This level of disillusionment invariably leads to a downturn in voter participation.

The average turnout [at the recent elections] was 63 per cent, and areas such as Fermanagh and South Tyrone, West Tyrone and Foyle all saw their vote draw stymied by persistent underinvestment and deprivation, all culminating in an even lower turnout than the 2017 election.

Opportunity

Having the opportunity to offer a progressive alternative to voters, unbound from historical connotations and free from party political affiliation, was a huge motivator in my decision to run.

The knowledge that the mere offering of an Independent on the ballot encouraged some of the most systemically neglected voters to enter polling stations – some for the first time in their lives – was enormously rewarding.

However, what persists is a larger and more challenging barrier to greater participation: how do you encourage people to engage in a process that has let them down so consistently and for so long?

Another major issue that only became evident to me through the process of running is the lack of understanding surrounding the Single Transferable Vote system.

This was clear not only from the ticks, xs, lines and squiggles I witnessed on many of the ballots I was tasked with tallying at the count centre, but also from the conversations I shared with prospective voters at the doors when specifically discussing the STV voting system.

Transfers ultimately determined the fate of most seats, and solidified many Alliance gains. The STV system is, at its heart, a ranking system.

If your preferred candidate is eliminated, the system ensures that your vote still counts. If nothing else, there would be a solid case for mandatory education on voting in schools, and all parties should be clearly outlining the benefits of voting down the ballot – not just voting for them.

Elections are a marathon with a tyre around your waist and heavy leg weights. From leafleting to canvassing to putting up posters and promptly taking them down again, it is six gruelling weeks where you put your mind and body through what feels like a contact sport.

As Independents invariably lack the resources and volunteer-base their party-political opponents will avail of, the additional effort required to run an even marginally effective campaign is, comparatively, gargantuan.

The final 72 hours culminate in a blur of sleepless nights spent knocking on every door reasonably possible and relocating dozens of posters to scattered polling stations into the wee hours. The count centre, however, is the great equaliser.

Camaraderie

Irrespective of the size of your team or the resources of your party, all are unified in frenetic tallying, desperately huddled together to catch a glance of the ballots and sharing resources in mutually beneficial camaraderie.

More than that, there’s a unique mixture of anticipation and relief at the knowledge that it’s all finally over, and there’s nothing more any one of us can do but watch along with everyone else.

People in NI have a reputation for being strategic voters, and the results of the election point not only to a shift in political loyalties.

Sinn Fein’s vote management is second-to-none, and the idea of punishing the DUP will no doubt have been a draw, strengthening the party’s ability to hold its 27 seats.

The shifting of voting patterns and transfers came at great expense to the both the Greens and the SDLP, the former having lost their two MLAs (including party leader Claire Bailey), and the latter having lost four MLAs ( including Deputy Leader Nichola Mallon).

The UUP didn’t fare well either, ultimately losing a seat instead of making any gains.

The reasons for this squeeze are varied and complex, but a common factor is almost undoubtedly the innate desire in most people to want to back the winning horse.

With 20 per cent of NI’s MLAs now designating as ‘other’, serious conversations need to be had over the mechanisms in Stormont that exclude this cohort.

Denying 20 per cent of elected representatives their opportunity to participate in a cross-community vote simply isn’t democratic.

The overarching theme echoed at the doors was the sentiment that NI’s politics don’t benefit the people.

Many don’t believe it will ever work, but if we ever hope to restore faith in the political institutions, we need to remove the mechanisms that block the normal functioning of the Assembly.

Perceptions are skewed; I didn’t encounter anger or defensiveness – rather, most people were happy to open up about politics, but what sometimes does weigh heavy is the lingering fear of what others might think should they freely speak their mind.

Realisation

The biggest and most inspiring take-away in all of this has been the realisation that the dominant narrative depicting NI as an inherently divided region could not be further from the reality.

The vast majority of people want less ‘Green and Orange’, and more delivery on the issues that really matter: healthcare, housing, and education, to name but a few.

These issues are present in the lives of every constituent, regardless of cultural background or leaning.

If I learned anything at the doors, it’s that the middle ground who want to leave the politics of the past – squarely in the past – are not the demographic that’s dwindling away.