Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Ballot box sectarianism is an addiction we can't beat

Lutton and Molloy at the Mid Ulster count
Lutton and Molloy at the Mid Ulster count

What would it take to persuade Catholics to vote unionist? That's the $64,000 question, which the Mid Ulster by-election certainly didn't answer.

Where, in three weeks of unionist electioneering, did anyone hear of a new, visionary appeal to the Catholic community of the kind which both Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt rolled out at their party conferences?

Granted, Mid Ulster remains a cockpit of sectarian politics, as it has been since the foundation of Northern Ireland. The united unionist candidate, Nigel Lutton, stood solely on the memory of his father's brutal murder.

If there is a new, pluralist vision for the future of the DUP, or the Ulster Unionists, Mr Lutton was not the man to articulate it, nor did he – to the point of refusing to engage in open debate in the media.

That the Alliance candidate didn't save his deposit was hardly a surprise, given the circumstances of the contest. If there was a glimmer of light in Mid Ulster, it peaked out over the SDLP candidate, Patsy McGlone, who showed that all is not lost in the battle between moderate nationalism and republican dogma.

When I reflected in this column about a range of recent opinion polls which show a majority of Catholics wish to remain within the UK, one reader responded bluntly. "The only poll that counts is Mid Ulster and you will get your answer then."

He was absolutely right. No matter how much we media observers speculate on a changing mood within the Catholic community, no matter how many professional and independent polls are conducted, which show a surprisingly different result, the ballot box speaks volumes still for political entrenchment.

The only lesson from Mid Ulster is that Northern Ireland is not heading in any pluralist direction and remains deeply divided along sectarian lines.

The reality is that the Protestant community in Mid Ulster united behind a single candidate and that Catholics voted, as ever, in contradiction to those opinion polls suggesting an increasing desire to stay within the UK.

The Mid Ulster by-election cannot be ignored as a gauge of how the political winds are blowing. There was no great upsurge in support for the united unionist candidate.

The SDLP, though performing better, languishes a long way behind Sinn Fein.

The Alliance Party would barely have filled a church hall in County Tyrone with the votes they received.

Civic unionism, non-sectarian unionism, Alliance-style unionism, call it what you will: the only evidence we have that many Catholics want anything to do with it is in opinion polls, which election results continue to disprove completely. In such circumstances, where are the votes going to come from for the unionist dissidents Basil McCrea and John McCallister, setting out to create a new, non-sectarian party?

Are they really going to win the support of Catholics, who see no economic sense in a united Ireland and wish to stay within the UK for the time being at least, or the many disaffected Protestants, who have stopped voting for established unionist parties?

The evidence, to date, suggests that it may be easier for a hardened alcoholic to stop drinking, or a chain-smoker to throw away cigarettes, than for voters in Northern Ireland to cross the sectarian divide, to end the habit of a lifetime and support the other side of the political equation.

There's an old saying that the more one looks at Northern Ireland, the more complicated it becomes.

In today's world, that is certainly true of the Catholic electorate, privately pro-union, if the opinion polls are to be believed, but politically still defiantly nationalist.

Sadly, both sides of this equation, Protestant and Catholic, continue to be immovable, as the Mid Ulster result demonstrates.

If a majority of Catholics there cannot even bring themselves to vote for the SDLP candidate, what hope is there in the foreseeable future for unionists to attract their vote? The answer looks obvious: none.

Such a conclusion, despairing as it is, poses challenges to all the various strands of unionism, from Peter Robinson to Mike Nesbitt to the new McCrea-McCallister axis.

They may all wish to capitalise on the pro-Union Catholic mood. They talk up the prospects of a new, pluralist style of unionism, which could transform politics in Northern Ireland, but the ballot box tells a different story.

The day remains distant. The Mid Ulster by-election made it look more distant still.

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