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Hope of dramatic change is fading: Lindy McDowell

By Lindy McDowell

Just around the time of the signing of the Belfast Agreement and the Yes vote that endorsed it in the ensuing referendum, I remember seeing a sweet picture in the papers of a little baby girl, just born.

Her parents, inspired by the mood of the time, named her Hope.

Down the years I have often thought about Hope and wondered what she made of subsequent events.

Because Hope would be in her late teens now. A young woman starting out in life. A child of that generation we fervently believed would have a future different from our own.

A generation who would escape not just the horrific violence that blighted their parents' lives but - equally importantly - would grow up free from the iron bonds of sectarianism.

Well, look how that has panned out...

A new survey reveals statistics which are at once both shocking - and not in the least surprising. For all our peace-processing and moving forward and consigning division to history, we're still firmly ensconced in our traditional tribal camps.

A couple of headline statistics - only 2% of Protestants would give their first preference vote to a nationalist party, and only 4% of Catholics to a unionist.

And 18% of all Protestant preferences (further down the voting slip) and 25% of Catholic preferences go to cross-community parties.

The survey - with 4,000 respondents - was carried out by the Electoral Reform Society. Their message is that while that first statistic may seem bleak, the latter (and other findings) give us reason for optimism.

Really?

I'm not sure if that would be my verdict. I have a couple of sons who, although a bit older than Hope and the Agreement, have nonetheless come of age in relatively peaceful times.

They've grown up in a society which has changed enormously. They are part of a generation who do not immediately pigeonhole people, on meeting them, as Catholic or Protestant or even nationalist or unionist.

But the real division, the reverting to tribal loyalty, is most obvious when it comes to the ballot box.

Why is this?

MLA and journalist Eamonn McCann was the first, I think, to argue that the Agreement and the structure of the Assembly merely entrenched sectarianism. We vote tribally not because we are voting for "our side".But because we don't want the "other side" to get the upper hand.

The Electoral Reform Society suggests progress in its survey. I look around me at my sons' generation and younger and I think they deserve better than this.

How do we ever break the cycle? I really have no idea. Apart from anything else, I imagine those figures of our low-level, cross-community, cross-pollination at the polls will make uncomfortable reading for Mike Nesbitt.

For all the great vision we had at the time of the signing of the Agreement of a future free from division for Hope and her generation, we are still stuck in our tribal tram tracks.

And the likelihood that this upcoming election will bring dramatic change?

Some hope...

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