Sinn Féin - On Your Side

Doherty calls for massive voter registration campaign

19 July, 2004

Sinn Féin Councillor Pearse Doherty speaking at the MacGill summer school in Donegal this morning said "It is of huge concern that growing numbers of people are not voting, are not registered to vote and are not interested in politics." He called for pro-active policies to ensure that voters are registered, that people are empowered and that politics are made relevant.

Mr. Doherty said:

"The Local Government and European elections saw Sinn Féin's electoral and political strength substantially increased. We doubled our Local Government representation making crucial breakthroughs in Cork, Donegal, Dublin, Galway Waterford and Wexford. Across the island the party made gains with two EU seats and in my own case a near miss in the North West constituency. On the island we solidified our position as the third largest party and it is clear to all that Sinn Fein can substantially strengthen its Leinster House and Westminster representation in coming elections.

We do not fight elections for the sake of it, or hold elected office for something to do. The seats won by Sinn Féin in the recent elections do not belong to us as individuals or to the party. We hold them in trust for the people. Our responsibility is to represent the communities who elect us individually and collectively. And we have an over-riding national responsibility to work for Irish re-unification and for social and economic justice.

And while the elections were good for Sinn Féin there are broader issues of national concern which have to be addressed, particularly voter registration, the non-voting public and the deliberate absence of debate from campaign strategies and the media.

Elections are becoming increasing irrelevant for growing numbers of voters who are deciding not to vote and not to register to vote. They are not interested in politics and see the work of Councils, the Assembly, Leinster House and the European Parliament as being irrelevant to their day-to-day life. And in many ways this is not a surprising phenomenon.

These elections like many others in the 1990s was one untouched by any real discussion about policy. There wasn‚t any debate about the powers of local government, about CAP reform, infrastructural deficits or the EU Constitution.

We can‚t blame all of this on a fickle media. The political parties themselves have to shoulder some of the blame. For Fianna Fail the reasons were obvious. They didn‚t want a debate about their record in government. They didn‚t want the election to be a referendum on the coalition record so far.

Instead they sought in the months before the election to neutralise the issues. The two core examples of this are the issues of planning and the Hanly Report. In both cases a government fudge ended the debate and a smug government knew that serious damage had been averted as most floating voters make up their minds on voting intentions in the dying moments of the campaign when Hanly and planning were safely kicked to touch.

The larger opposition parties failed to drive these issues home.

The other notable aspect of campaign strategies was the infighting between other parties, such as Neachtain and McDaid in North West, Brady and Ryan in Dublin, McGuinness and Doyle in Leinster.

Is this the message we want to send to voters that elections are not about policy but just about carving up the spoils of office?

Opinion Polls

The last twenty plus years have seen a sea change in how political parties contest elections and how the media report them. Central to this is the use of opinion polls. They have become the framework on which campaigns are fought and how the media report them. For the media they mark a significant shift from reporting on news to creating it. Elections have in many cases become horse races in terms of media presentation as news headlines hinge not on policy positions or debates but on what individual or party is behind or ahead of another one. And their accuracy is often questionable. The 2002 surveys carried out by Irish Marketing Surveys was often wrong not just in its 50% vote share rating for Fianna Fail just days before polling day but in its selective use of opinion polls in constituencies that Sinn Fein were strong in.

I am not arguing for a ban on polls in the media, but there is a need for a healthy debate on the way we use polls, a debate that has not even begun. Maybe we should have a poll first on who is in favour of such a discussion

Voter Registration and non Voters

A lot of media comment in the aftermath of the election was devoted to the question of where did the Sinn Fein vote come from. The reality is that it came from many places ˆ new voters, voters who traditionally voted for other parties, those who had not voted in recent elections and critically they joined the growing number of people over the last decade who support Sinn Féin agenda for change. Since the 1990s we have been involved in what we term the active implementation of Connolly's re-conquest of Ireland. Throughout Ireland when Sinn Fein canvassers and activists knock doors their first question is to ask not for a vote for Sinn Fein, but to ask are they registered to vote at all. The second task is provide the back up of the how to register. Many councils have adopted progressive polices on this but voters need to know they have something worthwhile to register their vote for.

For many of the establishment parties it seems that they were quietly content to win elections where an ever decreasing number of voters actively participated. This is a hollow victory and now is beginning to backfire. In the Six Counties the active disenfranchisement of voters through new registration procedures is a travesty of democracy. Hundreds of thousands of voters have disappeared from the registers and this must be an issue for all parties across the island.

Sinn Féin is calling for a massive voter registration campaign across the island and for greater democracy, empowerment and accountability in politics."ENDS

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