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Tribalism still reigns 20 years after peace

Editor's Viewpoint

It is no great surprise to see that Northern Ireland politics are still as polarised as ever nearly two decades after the Good Friday Agreement was signed in a wave of optimism that society here could be changed forever.

The survey from the Electoral Reform Society shows that only a tiny proportion of unionists or nationalists would ever contemplate voting first for a party outside their own bloc.

And even though the STV system allows voters to give their preferences right through the list for their constituency, few Catholics or Protestants would put their mark in the box of an opposing party.

Around one-third of all preferences were for parties outside the big four - DUP, Sinn Fein, SDLP and UUP - but that does not give a corresponding return of Assembly Members. The centre ground still remains a minority.

Little wonder that UUP leader Mike Nesbitt received such a cold shoulder from even his own party when he said he would vote for a SDLP candidate as a second preference in the forthcoming election. His gesture may be the ideal way to conduct politics, but obviously tribal considerations trump real cross-party co-operation.

So where did it all go wrong after the Good Friday Agreement? The hope for a brighter future was fuelled first by the ending of conflict, but the guerrilla war conducted by the DUP and Sinn Fein against the original power-sharing partners, the UUP and SDLP, ensured that devolution never gained the momentum it should have.

The decision eventually by the DUP and Sinn Fein to share power offered new hope, but this has dwindled over the last decade as the parties both retreated towards the trenches in a welter of bad feeling and even more virulent language.

We are now a fortnight away from a new election, but the prospect of an early return to devolved government seems remote.

The inevitable conclusion - unless there is an unprecedented sea-change in voting habits - is that the majority of those who go to the polls are content to keep to their tribal silos no matter what the implications.

The one glimmer of hope is that a significant number of the 45% of voters who didn't bother going to the polls last May - either through apathy or weariness -turn out this time and change voting patterns to register their displeasure with the status quo. History is not encouraging.

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