Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

Tribal politics fade but expect election relapse

Gerry Adams

At last the fever seems to have passed, but don't rule out a relapse. Most of the parties are arguing that the coming election will be fought solely, or at least mainly, on bread-and- butter issues.

It's possible, because the border issue is now decided by a referendum, not by a vote at Stormont. So we don't need to turn every election into a border poll, or a sectarian headcount, as we once did.

That creates political space, which some of the parties are keen to expand into.

The problem is, though, without the old constitutional dragon to scare people into the polling boxes, turnout may fall.

Falling voter numbers has been a cross-community phenomena as peace bedded down, but it's particularly noticeable in the unionist community.

Some of the voters who stay away are characterised as 'Prods in the Garden Centres' - middle-class folk who accept peace and want to get on with their lives.

There are also, to coin a phrase, the 'Prods in the Corner Shop', who are mainly working class and uninspired by traditional politics.

The old Northern Ireland Labour Party was built around such people before the Troubles and, now that the crisis has passed, their grandchildren may become floating voters.

Some in East Belfast deserted Peter Robinson last year and unexpectedly switched to Alliance.

Among Catholics, polls suggest that around 20% of voters privately support the Union with Britain, but still vote for a nationalist party because the unionist parties were traditionally seen as unsupportive of Catholics.

Politicians are beginning now to reach gingerly across the sectarian divide in the hope of advancement. Gerry Adams called in this newspaper for "abandoned unionists" - the Prods in the Corner Shop - to consider Sinn Fein on the basis of its social and economic approach. In the past, such conciliatory words were effectively drowned out by the sound of IRA gunfire. Now it will be interesting to see if he has any takers.

Margaret Ritchie, the SDLP leader, has gone further to appeal to Protestants by wearing a poppy and talking of her desire to build a better Northern Ireland. She is looking for tactical votes against Sinn Fein, but she is also hoping for first preferences.

The DUP, once noted for its concentration on constitutional issues and religious rhetoric, has arguably moved the furthest.

"This is the first election where the main issues will be the real issues that face people in their everyday lives," Peter Robinson, the party leader, said before listing social and economic concerns that might feature on hustings in Finchley, Wexford or Paris.

One problem is that the parties have not yet developed policies that distinguish them in purely economic terms.

Sinn Fein uses more Left-wing language than the DUP, but they are at one on a range of issues, from corporation tax to health.

The fever of sectarianism may be passing out of our political system, but don't be surprised if there is a relapse as the struggle to get voters out becomes more intense.

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