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Parties' toxic politics will set us back years

Editor's Viewpoint

Almost 19 years ago the Good Friday Agreement - arguably the foundation of devolved government in Northern Ireland - pointed the way out of conflict and towards a new, more inclusive society. The term mutual respect was at the heart of that document.

Now, two decades on, and the relationship between the two major parties in the devolved administration could more accurately be described as toxic rather than respectful.

With an election - that DUP leader Arlene Foster has warned will be brutal - seemingly inevitable, the atmosphere is likely to become even more polluted with the two parties' heartlands likely to hear firebrand speeches, bringing unwelcome echoes of a time that most had hoped was consigned to the past.

One has only to look at the puerile, tit-for-tat sectarian bickering and actions of recent times to see the depressing direction politics is taking here. DUP ministers changing the name of a fisheries vessel from Irish to English and halting grants for Irish language while restoring funding for marching bands, Sinn Fein Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir ordering the removal of the Union flag from his offices in east Belfast, and Mrs Foster pointedly wearing a Union flag-inspired scarf at a Press conference.

These actions were all gesture politics of the most juvenile kind, but which will play well in some hardline areas, where the new vision for Northern Ireland has never been fully embraced.

What is most depressing is that they were carried out by intelligent people on comfortable salaries and in prominent civic positions who know well that they will create further division between the only two possible partners in government, barring some electoral tsunami of support for Opposition politicians.

It would be foolish to pretend that orange and green politics have been irrevocably removed from the Northern Ireland psyche - or even from the streets of our cities and towns - but all right-thinking people applauded previous administrations for attempting to give a lead in changing the dynamic of politics.

The Fresh Start Agreement seemed to cement that progress, but now the gains of the past seem dead and buried. Those of us who came through the Troubles hoped for a better future for our children, but it seems the political conflicts of the past - and the enmities - remain, and are being revitalised.

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