In an ever changing and increasingly technological world more and more people are spending increasing amounts of their time on social media platforms – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and others. Much of this is about keeping in touch with families and friends and work. I know of one group of neighbours in a street in Lenadoon in West Belfast who keep in touch with each other on Facebook messenger. They exchange news, local gossip, details of family events, look after each other, and have an eye to community safety. That is happening also in many rural communities across the island. Or at least in those communities which have broadband.
But the new technology has also become a battleground for political ideas, especially at election time. At the weekend it was revealed that the Tories had paid for 2,600 ads on Facebook for one day. The Labour Party and Lib-Dems have together spent more than one million pounds on social media ads since the start of November.
Despite this there is still a place in every election campaign for the traditional poster, canvass leaflet, freepost and sample ballot paper. These continue to play an important role in raising the profile of candidates and parties and presenting the core policy messages. Lampposts suddenly sprout different sizes and colours of posters. Doors are rapped. Banners will be erected at strategic points and when our loud hailing system is working I will travel far and wide encouraging voters to support their local Sinn Féin candidate.
One other certainty in elections is the arrival of bad weather. It is the bane of every candidate, Director of Elections and canvasser. Once an election is called, whatever the season, and the posters go up on the lampposts, the rain will come. The weather will turn nasty and the wind will tear at them. It’s one reason why sensible and experienced campaigners keep some posters in reserve. This general election campaign has followed that familiar pattern. By the bye some argue that elections could be fought without posters and maybe they could. But once one candidate puts a poster up that becomes an imperative for them all. Some Tidy Town Committees in Louth tried to negotiate poster free zones in the last local contest. I still don’t know how successful that was.
Last Thursday I was in Derry on the campaign trail with Elisha McCallion. We were all soaked to the skin. The rain was unrelenting. It has been the same in West and North Belfast. With an occasional burst of sunshine the cold and the rain have been constant companions. But so too has been the optimism of the election teams in the constituencies I have visited.
As you read this column the election campaign is finished. Today is getting-the-vote-out-day. It’s now over to you the electorate. It is polling day. The peoples’ day. The day you decide the shape and direction of politics for the next few years, and perhaps even longer.I
This general election is primarily about Brexit. In the North no one has done more to challenge Brexit and the DUP promotion of Brexit, than Sinn Féin. But in the North, in Scotland and in Wales there are other issues at play. Irish Unity, Scottish and Welsh independence and the threat of ongoing austerity in the event of a Tory win, are all part of the political agenda.
A last minute thought. In the four elections since 2017 - to Westminster, the local Councils, the European Parliament and the Assembly - the Unionist Parties lost their electoral majority. In the Westminster election in 2015 the unionist majority was reduced to less than 1 per cent. This marks a dramatic change from partition when the northern state was established by the British with what was believed to be an unassailable two thirds majority. Along with the demographic changes that have been identified the potential for further substantial electoral shifts is now a real possibility. This is especially true in this election.
Such an outcome could, in my view, increase the possibility of a successful outcome to the negotiations that are due to commence next week to restore the power sharing political institutions. Mary Lou and Michelle and our negotiating team have been quietly working away for some time now preparing for and trying to ensure that the conditions for a successful outcome to the negotiations is achieved.
For the last two years the DUP has been involved in a distraction. They stepped out of northern politics. They let their Westminster team dictate the pace. They did a confidence and supply agreement with the Tories – which I warned at the time would end in tears. And so it has.
Last Friday evening unionists were back in the Ulster Hall for another of those rallies they periodically hold to save the union. ‘Rally for the Union,’ harked back to a similar meeting in 1912 when unionists met to oppose Home Rule. The Union flag was flown upside down – as it was in 1912 – because ‘Ulster is in distress.’ The rally was also a reminder of the DUP rally in 1986 at which the paramilitary self-styled Ulster Resistance was established. What do each of these, and many other similar rallies, have in common? An underlying deep seated distrust by unionists of British governments.
Whatever the outcome of this British general election – whichever party or parties form the next government in London – or whoever wins the seats in the North - the unionist fear of and distrust in British governments will continue.
The Brexit referendum vote in 2016 and last year’s EU parliamentary vote also saw evidence that a section of unionist opinion is realising that their future and that of their children lies on the island of Ireland. I’m not suggesting they are united Irelanders. But they do want the political institutions restored and they do want to be in the EU.
My hope in this election is that those within unionism who recognise the evil of Brexit will be prepared to support those who oppose it. The DUP has rejected those who voted remain. They have rejected the northern electorate’s decision on Brexit. Instead they and others within loyalism who should know better, are playing on old sectarian fears. It’s time for change. It’s over to you the electorate. Use your vote wisely.