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Maurice Hayes: A lacklustre campaign all round has raised fears of a low turnout as the polls open in the North

IF there is a buzz in the air as the North goes to the polls today for two elections and a referendum, it reflects not great political excitement, but the sound of snoring as the electorate goes to sleep.

The referendum to change the voting system for Westminster elections from first past the post to Alternative Vote (a diluted form of Proportional Representation) has aroused zero interest in the North, where there has been no visible campaign on either side.

There is little enthusiasm either for the elections to select members for district councils which have long been scheduled for abolition as plans to reduce the number of councils from 26 to 11 cannot be much longer delayed.

That leaves the Assembly elections, for which an over-long six-week campaign has produced only apathy among the electorate, for whom Tuesday's final leaders' "debate" on television was possibly the final turn-off.

A lacklustre campaign all round has raised fears of a low turnout, even lower than the 63pc in 2007, although hopefully better than the 58pc of the 2010 Westminster election.

In many ways, since the overall balance of party strength is unlikely to change dramatically, turnout becomes potentially the most significant figure -- as an indicator of the overall health of the political system.

Optimists may try to reassure themselves that a low turnout reflects public satisfaction with the Assembly and Executive. More realistically, it will be read as disillusionment with the failure of the Executive to deliver on important policy areas, if not with politics in general.

A low poll, particularly in their own heartlands, would be particularly problematic for Sinn Fein, which needs to demonstrate to sceptics (if not diehards) in Republican ranks that politics can deliver for the party.

Since none of the political groupings that front for dissident republicans is running a candidate, a fall in the Sinn Fein vote in key areas would be read as a surrogate vote for dissidents. Which is one reason why DUP leaders have gone out of their way recently to encourage people simply to come out and vote.

Not that their motives are entirely pure either: the DUP has been raising the bogey of Sinn Fein as the largest party and Martin McGuinness as First Minister in order to draw votes from the UUP.

In the last Assembly election, the DUP took 36 seats and Sinn Fein 28, with the UUP (18) and the SDLP (16) very much the smaller parties, and Alliance with seven seats.

Both the DUP and Sinn Fein, boosted by the performance and the higher profile of Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, are likely to reinforce their position, but only by a seat or two, so that balance will not change. Neither the UUP nor the SDLP seem capable of winning back seats and are vulnerable -- the SDLP in North Antrim through boundary changes, and Ulster Unionists in the west where failure by their minister to fund cancer services at Altnagelvin will play badly. Incidentally, the scale of Unionist disillusion can be measured by the vote for Jim Allister's traditional Unionist Voice which is likely to take a seat in North Antrim.

The UUP and the SDLP present very similar profiles. Having bravely carried the burden of democratic policies in the worst times, both have been sidelined by what were their bitterest critics and opponents -- who have also stolen their policies. Both have had leadership contests, which have left scars, and both are at an awkward phase of inter-generational transition, which is not going particularly smoothly.

A proposal that both should decline membership of the Executive and form a cross-community opposition in the Assembly, which might have made sense in 2007, has less validity now that both parties are weaker in membership and on the ground, and with an uncertain and untried leadership.

The hustings, such as they are, have been dominated by the two large parties, who seem to have more people knocking doors and more posters higher up on lamp-posts, where the new model Sinn Fein candidate is a bright young woman with a masters degree, while too many of the SDLP are the men of yesteryear, all looking a bit older. The UUP and the SDLP, too, have tended to spend too much time and energy on pointing out the failings of the two large parties, and complaining about being bullied at the trough in the Executive.

It is a sign of relative maturity that the election, for almost the first time in the North, is scarcely at all about constitutional slogans, but about the bread-and-butter issues of jobs, health, education, public services, safety and the environment. Most of the manifestos, however, are aspirational and rely heavily on assertion rather than worked-out policies.

Like parties in the Republic, they find it easier to blame a foreign bogeyman than to tackle the real problem of living within their means in the provision of public services. In this case, it is the British Treasury and the reduction in the block grant.

In an odd misreading of the public mood and of the Good Friday Agreement, the SDLP manifesto commits it to a referendum on Irish unity within four years.

At a time when people are concerned about jobs, about negative equity, about the emigration of their children, about threats to social benefits, health services and public services generally, it is hard to see unity as being among the first 20 concerns of voters in either jurisdiction.

Irish Independent