Belfast Telegraph

All we're doing is kicking the tin down the road... and being herded into our sectarian pens

There's disappointment, apathy and betrayal as people here are forced into an election they don't want, says Gail Walker

The only good thing about the forthcoming Assembly election is that, by the end of it, there will be 18 fewer public representatives in the House on the Hill to make a hames of our future. Less than a year after traipsing to the polling booth to elect the current Assembly we are asked to make our way yet again - and against our will - to the local school or community hall to be confronted by, more or less, the same list of politicos as last time.

With largely the same result.

After we vote they should actually hand us a free fridge magnet with that quote from Albert Einstein: "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

But the people of Northern Ireland are not insane. Rather, we are trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare of paranoia, fear, absurdity and existential crisis.

A bit much? Perhaps. But this is the third election in three years. There is no indication that any of the issues which supposedly prompted this one - RHI, the legacy of the past, loss of faith in the structures - will be solved or even addressed in six weeks' time when the same sorry bunch climb out of their cars at Stormont. All we are doing now is kicking the tin another few months down the road. But spending yet more public money on ghastly electioneering material in the meantime.

A few brief weeks ago - round about the time Martin McGuinness for reasons of ill health didn't board that plane with Arlene Foster bound for China - everything was manageable. The rhetoric was all united front, working through disagreement, Fresh Start. How suddenly it all turned sour, bitter, toxic.

The fact there is nothing positive about Northern Irish politics has been exposed once more. The charges flying to and fro range from corruption to opportunism - amid the recriminations and accusations, the exchanges have a familiar ring to them. It's the politics of the bigot. No mystery there. Suddenly it's back to first positions for everyone. How depressing can it get? We will soon find out.

Barring People Before Profit or the Greens sweeping to power, the result is already known - regardless of how the seats actually shake out. Deadlock will be returned. Barring a miracle, the problems which existed before the collapse of the Executive will still be there. A poll topping Sinn Fein outing would take that party as much by surprise as anyone. Given the tortuous performance of recent months over RHI and the mish-mash basket of reasons why the Assembly was brought down, it is doubtful if the party has any strategy to cope with victory. A genuine four-way struggle - due to disillusionment with the two largest parties - would lead to goodness knows what madness, though a reversal of the historical drift that has seen the SDLP and the UUP marginalised would be even more astounding than the Irish flag run up the pole at Stormont - for real, this time.

So what is the point of this election? It won't address Brexit or jobs or investment or healthcare… indeed, it will only make those things more uncertain, less secure, more vulnerable. The only point would be a promise on the ballot paper that any new Government must serve the full five years.

It is simply not good enough to say that we get the politics we deserve. We deserve better than this because I don't see that politicians are living in the same place the rest of us are.

All around, ordinary men and women are doing the best they can to get on with their lives. Apart from the periodic crises where 'identity' is called into question, no one gives a fig about our politicians. But there is always that poisonous type of politics - the nasty turn, the old attitudes, the tired criteria, which connect the swish, sophisticated, suited-and-booted elected representative with the bar-room bore, the back-alley bully, the mouthy tattooed hobgoblin going about his punishment-shooting business.

'Keeping us safe' was the foundation of our contract with our leaders. That was the basis of our pact, all those years ago when we voted to support the 1998 Agreement. You do your best and we will do our best. In return, we will all pretend this is a real politics, a real Government, a real economy, not one bankrolled by Britain, Ireland, the US and Europe. We'll all play along as long we aren't being killed any more. That was the deal.

Go around Belfast -a city in the middle of a kind of cappuccino renaissance. Why is it regularly voted a top tourist destination? Because of the efforts of its citizens.

We are changing rapidly. More co-habitation, more inter-tribal marriage, greater emphasis on social issues (regardless of where exactly you stand on any individual issue). Church attendance is declining (for better or for worse).

In the last census, one in five people aged between 20-40 described themselves in religious terms as 'None or Not Stated'. More of us are interested in Brexit and Trump than about the old hot-button sectarian issues - and it's still the case here that Brexit and Trump won't kill you, but the sectarian issues will. We're not over the old politics - anything but - but we are evolving. Our politicians are not - or not quickly enough. If the old attitudes have been parked over recent years, put up on breeze blocks in the back garden, had a tarpaulin thrown over them in the garage, it's down to our fellow citizens just 'keeping on keeping on'.

That's not dodging the issue. That's not avoiding what really matters. That's in fact how most of us live our lives - even those of us who, if we thought about it, would have a view on the 'constitutional issue'. The point is, that view doesn't define who we are, who we love, who we are friends with or how we would vote if we were allowed an actual alternative to the politics of the past.

That is why there is not only a sense of disappointment around, and certainly of apathy (which may translate into a low turnout); but it is why there is also a real sense of betrayal.

And it covers everyone, because 'they' have decided that the realities of your life, your hope and fears, count for nought. Our leaders - who can be as slippery and as 'flexible' as any other nation's politicos - can't find a way around this relatively simple crisis because… they do not want to.

So against our will we're herded into our sectarian pens, to be head-counted as sheep and goats. Out there in the darkest dark, the wolves are beginning to circle. Today, I shall go out and register a secret vote. I shall order a venti cappuccino and a bun and sit with fellow citizens all around me. They are living their lives, doing the best they can. Just like me.

They are doing their duty. Our politicians, in shocking contrast, aren't.

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