Is this the dullest election campaign in NI history?

Woman, with dark hair and brown glasses wearing a green top, is looking off to the side and has her hand up to her face in a yawn
[Getty Images]

There is an almost annual poll in which everyone is a winner.

Ladies and gentlemen - "Is this the dullest election campaign in history?"

Nominations close at midnight. Polls are predicting a landslide.

But there is another point of view and this is it.

When I was researching this piece I typed the words "Northern Ireland + elections + dull" into a search engine and I came up with a piece published on the BBC News NI website on 4 May 2022 entitled: "NI election 2022: Dull campaign could still produce a seismic result."

And it did. Sinn Féin came out as Stormont's biggest party for the first time.

I should have remembered it... because I wrote it.

It majored on the assembly election campaign of 2003 which featured a never-to-be-forgotten clash on an east Belfast pavement between the leaderships of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Ulster Unionist Party.

As the DUP's Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson walked back to their bus, I did a piece straight to camera in which I said: "They say its been a dull campaign. They won't be saying that (pause for dramatic effect)... any more."

I was wrong.

They say it every time and about almost every election.

This week as I walked into the building where the DUP was launching its manifesto somebody said: "It's been a really dull campaign."

Quick as a flash Ian Paisley, who was beside me, said: "What do they expect? Hand-to-hand fighting in the street?"

The former Alliance leader David Ford has spent much of this campaign in one of the most fiercely fought constituencies - North Down.

He has been fighting elections for decades.

"Isn't every election the dullest ever," he says.

"I remember seeing a US documentary on a UK general election in the 60s and they showed a town hall meeting in which Harold Wilson was heckled by a woman in the audience and answering back. You’d never get that now.

"Nowadays you get set-piece events in which you go on with the advice 'don’t mess up'."

'Epic-scale dullness'

And then there's the leaders' TV debates.

We still look forward with fevered anticipation only to be left feeling lower than a Scottish football fan at the Euros.

Political commentator Alex Kane has a theory.

"The problem with candidates is that they do and say what they're told to do and say. That's what makes them dull," he said.

"There are so few genuine characters in politics today. Too few have known anything other than politics. Never got their hands dirty.

"They talk like and act like automatons. No real passion or emotion. Yes, its epic-scale dullness. And no, when you're applying for a job like MP you should be exciting people."

Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness
Some political watchers wistfully remember the Stormont election of 2007 - the prelude to the restoration of Stormont under Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness [PA Media]

For all the TV debates - and the social media campaigns - elections are still won and lost on the ground.

The sound of leather on gravel as doors are knocked and leaflets are put through letterboxes.

Once there was even a thing called the loud hailer in which candidates were driven around neighbourhoods, urging people to vote for them at ear-splitting decibel level.

David Ford was not a fan.

“We had a candidate who was very keen on them but my feeling was - don’t use them unless you’re in an area in which you’re sure of at least 50% support or else you’re just annoying people.”

Dr David McCann, deputy editor of the political website Slugger O'Toole, says a dull campaign is actually a sign of things getting better.

"Yes, it’s been dull. However, Stormont is up and running and only it being down would have made it interesting," he said.

"2017 and 2019 were Brexit elections with no Stormont. So I suppose people cannot have it both ways. Surely it's good we've moved on past both issues."

When was the last time we had a really interesting election? Alex Kane is nostalgic for the 2007 election to Stormont.

"It was genuinely exciting because it was the prelude to the coming together of Sinn Féin and the DUP in government," he says.

"There was hope in the air. And then the Chuckle Brothers. For a few months we dared to dream."

Nigel Farage, wearing a white jacket with blue stripes, speaking into a microphone
The new leader of Reform UK, Nigel Farage, has generated some headlines [PA Media]

This time, instead of the Chuckle Brothers, we've had the new leader of Reform UK, Nigel Farage.

Mr Farage is backing Ian Paisley in his battle with Jim Allister - the man who signed an agreement with the party in March.

We've had Naomi Long swapping an afternoon at an Ireland's Future rally for campaigning on a Portrush ghost train.

And, we have had the new DUP leader Gavin Robinson accepting his party had oversold the deal to restore powersharing.

He said there should have been more "cautious realism".

It could be the motto for evaluating whether the next election campaign is the dullest on record.

But it won't.