Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 December 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Politicians must woo young voters weary of the old border quarrel

The border with the Republic remains a  contentious issue
The border with the Republic remains a contentious issue

The big message of our poll so far is that the political process is losing touch with the electorate. People don't care about it and don't see their needs and concerns being met.

This is a dangerous situation which could, in the short term, lead to the rise of extremist populist movements.

We got a taste of that in flags protests which threw far right figures like Jim Dowson into the limelight.

The new century calls for new strategies to be devised, new issues to be addressed and, unless the existing parties can react creatively, it may require new parties to take the initiative.

It is not just that Stormont scores an almost laughably low approval rating of minus 60% from voters.

It is not just that nobody is very surprised when this happens and politicians make light of it.

It is not just that less and less people want to vote in the coming elections or that it is the young who are turning their back on politics in increasing numbers.

These are the symptoms, the warning signs.

The real problem is that politics are being fought on issues that most people don't connect with to the extent that they once did.

The political game is being fought on the issues that dominated the last century and parties are playing to the lowest common denominator among a shrinking voter base.

The border is a case in point.

We are coming close to the centenary of partition and the bloody events that led up to it are being remembered.

When the border was drawn nobody expected it to last a hundred years. The attitude of the unionist founding fathers was that it was the second best alternative to keeping all of Ireland united to Britain and that it might stave off the evil day of rule from Dublin for another generation or two, an attitude that soon descended into a siege mentality.

In the south, Michael Collins also looked on partition as a temporary expedient which would allow him to consolidate his new state.

Northern Ireland has proved far more durable than those early Ulster unionists feared or their nationalist counterparts hoped, but the politics of the main parties hasn't kept up with the change.

This poll shows that only 3.8% would vote for unity now and only 22% would support it even in 20 years.

That would take us to 2033, far beyond the centenary of the 1916 rising which was once Sinn Fein's target date. This is no blip. A BBC Spotlight poll in February showed only 17% of people favouring unity and it showed, like our poll, that most Catholics also favour retaining the link with Britain.

In the coming days, we will bore down into the shifting sands of national identity.

We have already seen that less people are identifying as either Catholic or Protestant.

Northern Ireland, though still more religiously observant than most places, is gradually becoming a more secular and free-thinking society.

Of course, Catholics who favour the union with Britain are unlikely to join flag protests or support contentious Orange marches.

The poll shows very few of them supporting the permanent display of flags on civic buildings, for instance, but then a majority of Protestants took the same view, albeit a smaller majority.

Most people like our open borders and friendly relations with the Republic.

A new type of politics is struggling to be born, one not based around religion or the constitution.

It is now focusing on the type of society that can provide a prosperous, shared future. Both Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness have shown signs they see a new mood lurking beneath the surface of politics.

NI21 and Alliance are also self-consciously trying to tap into it.

Predominantly though, politicians play safe.

They appeal to the prejudices and fears of the older, more conservative portion of the population.

It is a shrinking demographic but it is still considerable and it continues to vote when others don't.

That is the way politics have been played here for nearly 100 years.

There is a growing hunger for something different.

There is an opportunity for politicians who can seize the moment and help the change to happen.

 

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