With the next Assembly election less than two months away, Northern Ireland’s parties are starting to set out how they will pitch their campaigns to us, the voters. Already it seems that the tone of this year’s race won’t be dramatically different to what we have seen before in Northern Ireland elections. It always seems to come down to a choice between ‘us’ and ‘them’.
The DUP leader, Arlene Foster, bluntly told her party’s spring conference last weekend, “the next first minister will either be me or Martin McGuinness. Your vote will decide. It’s that simple.” She went on to warn that, “A swing of only two votes in every hundred from the DUP to Sinn Fein would see Martin McGuinness become the next first minister.” It has echoes from 2011, when voters were warned that a vote for any party other than the DUP was essentially a vote for Martin McGuinness as first minister.
The unfortunate reality is that in most cases, negative campaigning is effective. It’s much easier to fall back on the negatives of the ‘other’ party instead of making a positive case for your own. People are typically more incentivized to vote against something or someone than to vote for something or someone. That’s true in elections in Northern Ireland, but it’s equally true in elections around the world as well.
Just look at the current European referendum campaign. The ‘Stronger In’ campaign has been dubbed ‘Project Fear’ by its critics. They accuse the it campaign of scaremongering, of playing into people’s fears of the unknown to convince them that sticking with the devil they know is better than the devil they don’t. Whether it’s ‘Project Fear’ or ‘Project Fact’, it’s certainly had an effect, at least so far. When David Cameron returned with a deal from Brussels, a YouGov poll found that 38% wanted to leave the EU and 37% wanted to remain. After a media blitz of warnings of the potential risks of leaving the EU, the ‘Remain’ camp has gained a 5% lead over ‘Leave’: 40% to 35%. Public opinion is fluctuating, and for now it seems to be influenced by the perceived risks of leaving the EU than the perceived benefits of remaining.
In many ways, it’s strikingly similar to the Scottish referendum campaign. Alex Salmond and the SNP accused the ‘Better Together’ camp of running a negative campaign: talking Scotland down and portraying Scottish independence as a giant leap into the dark. We know the result of that referendum.
And then in the last Westminster election, it’s hard to imagine that a Conservative majority government would have emerged based on its economic message alone. Promises of ‘a brighter, more secure future’ based on their economic record was certainly part of their success, but there’s little doubt that David Cameron’s warnings of Ed Miliband possibly being held to ransom by the Scottish Nationalists led many swing voters to back the Tories.
Across the Atlantic, a blunt hashtag has been trending lately: #StopTrump. Donald Trump has successfully mobilized a broad group of frustrated voters, and now his party rivals are becoming increasingly desperate to stop him. But if he manages to pull off victories in Florida and Ohio this week, he will prove virtually unstoppable in becoming the Republican presidential nominee. It will be Trump versus Clinton and, let’s face it, it will be a gutter fight. Trump has already boasted, “I haven’t even started on Hillary yet. … Believe me.” I do believe him on that. Meanwhile, with so much heated rhetoric flying around, it’s hard to see how Hillary will be doing much to persuade Americans to vote for her. A superb Saturday Night Live sketch captured the irony that voters aren’t exactly enthusiastic about Clinton, many even loathe her, but it turns out that she could be their least worst nightmare: “So to all of you voters out there who have thought for years, ‘I hate Hillary. I could never vote for her’, to you I say: welcome! ‘Cause I’ve got clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, and here you are, stuck in the middle with me!” The single biggest issue will inevitably be #StopTrump.
So, is Northern Ireland really much different? Can we really blame our politicians for being, well, politicians? On the surface, no. The DUP leader is just the same as David Cameron, just the same as the Stronger In campaign, just the same as the Better Together campaign, and just the same as Hillary Clinton. She, like all of the others, wants to win. And going negative seems to work.
There are two reasons, however, why Arlene Foster is ultimately wrong to make it a central issue that it’s ‘her or Martin’. The first is that whilst negative campaigning can work effectively in in the short-term, in the long-term it is highly damaging for people’s faith in politics. Yes, people themselves play along with it at the time, but it’s part of the reason why more and more people are abandoning the electoral process altogether.
In the Scottish independence referendum, it’s possible that some undecided voters backed independence precisely because of their perceptions of the negative campaign run by the other side. That was Andy Murray’s reasoning, after all. In the upcoming EU referendum, ‘Project Fear’ may be working for now, but the ‘Stronger In’ campaign needs to tread very carefully on this. It could yet backfire. In America, Hillary will call on voters to ‘Stop Trump’, but what if Donald Trump turns on the charm and suddenly comes across as the more presidential of the two? In Northern Ireland, voter turnout fell from 70% in the first election to the Northern Ireland Assembly to just 55% in the last one. People are rapidly disengaging from electoral politics here, and part of the reason is the seemingly endless cycle of ‘us-and-them’ politics. That trend will have extremely serious consequences if it continues much further.
The second, and related, reason is to state the obvious: this is Northern Ireland. This is still a deeply divided place in terms of nationality, religion, and identity in general. To call on voters to stop the other side from getting in is not just about public policy. It comes down to dividing our society along sectarian lines. Making choices based on public policy and competence is part of a healthy political debate. Calling on people to make choices based on sectarian calculations is not.