Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Why we're not polls apart over border issue after all

Embracing change: do politicians like SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell take heed of new political allegiances here?

Yet another opinion poll confirms that differences over the constitutional future of Northern Ireland do not correlate with the sectarian divide.

For example, more than half the SDLP's supporters say they wish to remain within the UK rather than opt for a united Ireland. Nearly a quarter of Sinn Fein supporters feel the same.

The new BBC Spotlight findings echo many of the conclusions from a Belfast Telegraph poll carried out last year. The 2011 census returns and lifestyle research by Queen's University and the University of Ulster also indicate clearly that many people in Northern Ireland are not what they seem to be.

They are not simplistically Protestant unionist or Catholic nationalist or republican as the media portrays them. An increasingly number, now close to one in five, think of themselves as Northern Irish, just as Scottish and Welsh people hold a deep sense of patriotic identity but still wish to live within a UK context.

Many "Northern Irish" are content with the economic security of the UK and would worry about the precariousness of life in a unified Irish state. They are attracted to the idea of a shared Northern Ireland and identify themselves as "Northern Irish" because that is a more acceptable and less divisive term than being labelled British or Irish.

Sinn Fein and the SDLP appear to be in public denial about the findings of successive polls which should send shockwaves through both parties and pose difficult questions for future leadership and direction. The simplistic labelling of Catholics as "nationalists" or "republicans" is now open to question.

Many people in Northern Ireland are being rigidly categorised in constitutional pigeon holes which bear little resemblance to the reality of their political thinking today. At worst, the views of a significant number of Catholics could be misrepresented.

We know already that fewer people are exercising their democratic rights at the ballot box. Only 54% choose to vote at the last election. The Belfast Telegraph poll, carried out by Lucid Talk, found that six out of 10 women might not vote next time around and nearly half the population in general shared their apathy. One reason could well be that the principal parties in Northern Ireland are failing to reflect the true feelings of people who might care to vote for them but don't.

Whatever comfort the two main unionist parties may take from the huge support for the Union shown in the Telegraph and BBC polls, neither of them has had any more success in attracting cross-community support than the SDLP or Sinn Fein.

The unionists say they want to reach across the sectarian divide but where are their ideas for doing so? If the unionist parties are really serious about widening their base to attract some of the 38% of Catholics who support the Union, they will need to embrace Irish as well Ulster-Scots and Orange culture. They will need to welcome Catholics into their ranks and on to their platforms in a way that they haven't done before.

They will need to revise narrow and deep-seated attitudes, seek the advice of influential Catholic figures and develop out-reach programmes in that community. They will need to address the illusion that only Protestantism equates with being British.

The poll findings suggest that there may be thousands of people supporting the "nationalist" SDLP who are not really nationalists at all. Given the choice, they would opt to stay in the UK rather than join in a unified Irish state.

The SDLP should think twice about the extent to which it continues to play a green card. Its obsession with a united Ireland, which is not on the agenda of many SDLP supporters, has left the party bereft of cross-community support and at the same time has done nothing to differentiate it from Sinn Fein.

Perhaps someone within the SDLP can be persuaded to believe that it is possible to be a member of a social, democratic, left of centre party in Northern Ireland and not actually hanker after a united Ireland but feel at home with the UK.

As for Sinn Fein, its spokespersons may dismiss the opinion polls but if they are really as smart as they appear to be, they will adjust to the changing face of Irish society.

A constant anti-British agenda with never a word of praise or acknowledgement for life within the UK may play to traditional republican galleries.

It does nothing to improve community relations in this society, as the flag dispute has shown, nor does it help to build trust in partnership government at Stormont.

The overall image of Northern Ireland is not helped by its portrayal as a society split down the middle between unionists and nationalists on constitutional lines but a range of independent opinion polls conducted in recent times shows the truth is somewhat different.

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