With the 12th of July almost upon us, people living in Northern Ireland can’t help but notice the familiar sights of bonfires being constructed, freshly painted red-white-and-blue kerbstones, and areas adorned with British, Northern Ireland, and UVF flags.
This annual event very much hearkens back to Northern Ireland’s past, and depending on your perspective, is either a celebration of cultural heritage or a destructive ritual that represents the desire of some to cling to old and divisive political aspirations.
Last week, the Belfast Telegraph ran a series of stories on new approaches to Northern Ireland politics, billed by David Gordon as ‘a major debate on moving Northern Ireland politics away from tribal headcounts.’
The Telegraph sought the perspectives of a range of commentators from nationalist, unionist, and ‘middle ground’ perspectives.
The debate was framed in the context of looming public sector cuts and the 2011 Assembly elections, driven by the question of whether Northern Ireland’s current politicians are up to the task of working together and delivering on ‘bread and butter’ issues.
As Prof. Rick Wilford of Queen’s University acknowledged in an article on the first day of the series, there’s a strong temptation for both nationalists and unionists to revert to sectarian politics.
This is especially the case with unionists, since the Ulster Unionist-Conservative alliance has failed and there may be pressure on the UUP and DUP to align in the next election in order to prevent Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness from becoming First Minister.
But Wilford and other contributors seemed to subscribe to theory that the 2010 Westminster elections provided some indication that people want to move beyond sectarian politics – for instance, in the SDLP’s attitude towards a possible electoral pact and in the election of Alliance’s Naomi Long in East Belfast.
An article by Gordon, however, highlighted the structural problems in achieving non-sectarian politics – not least the way the Assembly is set up. Gordon says,
All the main Assembly parties are represented in the Executive and there is no official Opposition to hold it to account. That must mitigate further against bread and butter issues dominating elections and political life.
My husband is fond of remarking that the Steven Nolan Show is the opposition in Northern Ireland politics.
I think he is only joking – but I can see his point: when the Assembly is not structured in a way that ensures accountability, maybe holding politicians to account does get left to radio shock jocks.
Alternatively, Wilford floated the idea of Alliance, the SDLP and the UUP,
Devising a [2011 Assembly] campaign on common, cross-community ground rather than, in the UUP’s and SDLP’s case, diving for cover into their respective communal trenches …
Wilford adds that this would,
…herald a decisively new kind of politics — though not as game-changing as the preparedness of a unionist to serve alongside Martin McGuinness as deputy First Minister, should such circumstances arise.
Other contributors – Long, SDLP MLA Conall McDevitt, and Platform for Change Chair Robin Wilson – also expressed the view that Northern Ireland’s middle ground must assert itself. They say that socially, politically, and economically, the cost of sectarian politics is just too high.
Right now, much of Northern Ireland’s so-called middle ground is probably on holiday, deliberately avoiding being in the place over the 12th of July.
If there is going to be any sort of meaningful change in Northern Ireland politics, the disillusioned middle ground will have to be tempted back into the voting booths or into community activism, convinced that there really can be a better shared future for all.
Despite the Telegraph’s debate, I’m not convinced that there’s a groundswell of ‘middle ground’ politicians ready to lead them.