Belfast Telegraph

Tribalism must not mask the real issues

No one is naïve enough to believe that tribal politics will not play a part in next month's Assembly and local government elections. Even if the political landscape in Northern Ireland has changed immeasurably in recent years and local power-sharing is now firmly embedded as the preferred way of governing the province, in the secrecy of the voting booths the electorate will continue to poll largely along traditional unionist and nationalist/republican lines.

Yet this newspaper feels it would be a mistake for politicians to concentrate on Orange and Green issues.

In his opening salvo of the election campaign, First Minister Peter Robinson said the issue of who will fill that post after the May 5 vote is a major talking point on the doorsteps. The unionist campaign to stop Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness becoming First Minister is an easy appeal to the basest tribal instincts of their supporters, but the real issues are job creation, rebalancing the economy, sorting out the chaos in education, ensuring health services continue to be delivered efficiently and tackling the threat from dissident republicans. Those are the issues we will be holding the parties to account on.

Mr Robinson did raise a legitimate concern over how the province is governed. Should the rules be changed to allow a voluntary coalition administration to emerge rather than the current mandatory coalition which is riven with internal tensions between the two major parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, and the two minor partners, the SDLP and Ulster Unionists? Would a government with a strong opposition be more effective in tackling day-to-day issues which affect people?

Those are questions which should be debated. However, there is a fine line between reasoned argument on how power is shared and a simple appeal for a tribal headcount. Unfortunately politicians can stray over that line as elections loom. Our appeal is for them to concentrate on the real matters of urgency.

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