Brendan Hughes: Don’t be surprised if election manifesto plans are quickly forgotten

Let’s face it. Very few voters actually read election manifestos – and that is wholly understandable.

The documents are a staple of political campaigning, allowing parties to set out in black and white their pitch to the electorate.

But people lead busy lives. For many the thought of sifting through jargon-heavy policy papers will send them off to sleep.

Read more:Brendan Hughes: Boris Johnson partygate sees DUP and Sinn Fein find common ground

For the more deft-of-touch manifestos, the wording can be so vague to the point of being indecipherable.

And of course after years of broken promises, there is a huge amount of distrust over politicians ever delivering on any of the pledges they make.

Stormont’s mandatory power-sharing model of devolved government means all this is particularly the case in Northern Ireland.

Because unionists and nationalists must govern together, manifestos can in many ways be chalked off as glorified wish lists.

When the dust settles on the Assembly election next week, the main parties with enough seats to enter the Executive will have to come together to see if they can agree some common ground.

Many of their individual proposals will likely be left behind in the process, however long that may take.

Nevertheless, the launch of a manifesto is a set piece event in an election campaign, providing the best opportunity to compare and contrast what parties are focusing on and how they are presenting themselves to voters.

The DUP was the last of the Assembly parties to unveil its manifesto but had the biggest spectacle, choosing a Craigavon factory which we were told shared its concerns about Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.

Party candidates sat on a stage in front of a huge poster outlining the DUP’s “five-point plan”.

Opposition to the Protocol features among the five priorities, but the party seems to have pivoted away from focusing its entire campaign on the Irish Sea trade border.

Instead, tackling problems in the health service was the first of the five priorities to be mentioned in detail in the manifesto.

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MLAs in the Assembly chamber at Parliament Buildings, Stormont

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And the DUP spent much of the press event repeatedly warning that Sinn Féin becoming the largest party would embolden its plans for a “divisive” border poll on a united Ireland.

Sinn Féin meanwhile has been countering this by seeking to downplay its Irish unity ambitions.

Its manifesto – the flimsiest of the bunch at just 20 pages plus another 20 in Irish – does include a priority to secure a date for a border poll.

But at its launch event the party appeared reluctant to dwell on this, focusing its campaign instead on issues such as cost-of-living pressures.

In this election the party is trying to appeal to Northern Ireland’s middle ground as it seeks to maintain its lead over the DUP in the opinion polls.

Sinn Féin MP John Finucane seems to be a key factor in this approach. He dominated the party’s election broadcast, talking up his cross-community credentials as a republican with relatives who are unionist or neither.

And while saying absolutely nothing during their manifesto launch in Belfast, he flanked Mary Lou McDonald, Michelle O’Neill and Conor Murphy on stage – and similarly too for those all-important photocalls.

Other parties used their manifesto events to bring activists to target constituencies. The SDLP held its launch in Dungannon in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency, while People Before Profit opted for Derry city in Foyle.

Alliance had the largest manifesto at 94 pages, but surprisingly chose to remain in the familiar territory of East Belfast rather than holding its launch west of the Bann where the party has traditionally struggled to gain ground.

The UUP held its launch far too early in the campaign. Its choice of a battleship for a backdrop was striking, but left itself open to metaphors of sinking ships.

While manifestos are an important way of holding parties to account for the next mandate, don’t be surprised if many of the big plans are quickly forgotten.

Read more:Brendan Hughes: Boris Johnson partygate sees DUP and Sinn Fein find common ground

Read more:Brendan Hughes: A review of Stormont parties’ Assembly election broadcasts

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