Why apathy remains an enemy: democracy still functions, if only just

20 Nov 2015 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 20 Nov 2015

June's marriage equality rally in Belfast made a difference to the Assembly vote
June's marriage equality rally in Belfast made a difference to the Assembly vote

Northern Irish political progress has three gears - slow, stop and reverse - but even though it was killed by a Petition of Concern, the latest marriage equality vote in Stormont shows the public can still force change.

The glacial politics of Northern Ireland fill much of its public with dismay.

That’s not an unfair statement to make, our apathy and lack of satisfaction with the House on the Hill – and more importantly the people inside it – is palpable and enormous.

It is an especially grim picture given the transformative change, mostly for the better, that NI has undergone in the past 20 years, though democratic processes.

At the heart of most of this apathy – perhaps most political apathy everywhere – is disengagement. Disengagement stems from the feeling that your views are not and will not be heard or represented.

This feeling is not always justified, no-one should expect that civic society be run exactly as they see fit and anyone who expects that is naïve to the extreme, but it is a powerful force in democracies, where inaction has consequences.

Of course, another point is that amongst that large pool of disenfranchisement, there will be many people with conflicting or even diametrically opposite views on one or many issues. Given that, a certain level of disengagement is practically inevitable.

However, it doesn’t all work like that.

Forcing change

Members of the public, either as individuals or organised within groups, can cause even the spluttering, clunking Stormont behemoth to alter its course.

The last vote on marriage equality – the fifth in Stormont’s history – finally got over the line, with a majority of MLAs voting in favour, including some such as Alliance’s Trevor Lunn who were open in that their minds had been changed over time.

Never mind the failure of the motion because of the DUP Petition of Concern, the odd mechanism designed to prevent sectarian majority rule but which goes much further and currently (and regularly) allows a minority of MLAs to torpedo anything they like, the fact is our Assembly has changed direction – all because of rising popular opinion, an opinion that has been laid in front of them through various campaigning tools.

The campaign for marriage equality has involved many organisations with Amnesty International (along with ICTU and the Rainbow Project) and NI Programme Director Patrick Corrigan spoke with Scope about how their efforts had helped to boost momentum.

He said that fundamentally public opinion was the main factor, and that enabling that opinion to show itself had gained some advantages – such as an email facility they set up for members of the public ahead of the latest Stormont vote, or the June rally they organised which saw an amazing 20,000 people turn up in Belfast city centre, smashing all expectations.

“The campaigning is an interesting aspect in how the vote finally turned at the fifth attempt.

“The total of 47 MLAs who backed change in the April vote was the previous highest, while the latest saw 53 in favour, and there are multiple reasons for this – and one of them is the general momentum behind this issue.

“Public opinion is clear from the Ipsos Mori poll, and the massive demonstration in Belfast in the summer, but also face-to-face meetings with MLAs.

“There was also a big email-your-MLA campaign over the fortnight before the most recent vote that saw over 4,000 people write to their representatives. People were able to put in their postcode and then write a letter to their six constituency MLAs.

“We know just from talking to MLAs that they hadn’t seen postbags like that on any issues. We have figures that show, for instance, that in South Belfast over 700 constituents did so, and, with and only about 20 of those responses were against gay marriage.

“Even lowest was in West Tyrone where 70 people took action – our target was 50 people in each constituency, so we smashed those across the board.”


The efforts of Amnesty and other campaigners did not occur in isolation, but did certainly help keep the issue moving forward.

The Amnesty Programme Director said many MLAs had been “on a journey” over this issue and that popular consensus had played some part in this.

“Obviously we are aware we are operating in a wider context, we are not operating in a little Northern Ireland vacuum, instead it happened in line with shifting opinion internationally.

“Particularly in Northern Ireland, coming off the back of the Marriage Equality referendum and the accompanying debate on the other side of the border.

But the point here is that the public can make a difference, even in Northern Ireland, even on issues where opposition is entrenched and vehement, and where the possible changes will only directly effect a relatively small part of the population.

Whatever your views, it is heartening that the people can make a real difference.

Of course, Northern Ireland is far from a perfect democracy – if such a thing is even possible – and the motion still failed, despite backing from a majority of MLAs, and so the green shoots of possibility cannot be said to have grown very high. But, at the same, there must be very few people in Northern Ireland who don’t believe that marriage equality is inevitable, and will come soon.

It’s not easy, but if you want things to change it is possible to do something about it - and the corollary to that is that giving up on local politics is not a neutral position, it is washing your hands of civic life.

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