Belfast Telegraph

Whatever the result of election, politics is only way forward

Editor's Viewpoint

Just last November Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness, in a much praised joint statement, wrote that, day by day, slowly but surely politics here was changing and it was for the better.

As Northern Ireland goes to the polls tomorrow for the second time since then, it is difficult to share that optimism. This general election has been called to strengthen Prime Minister Theresa May's hand in the Brexit negotiations, but here the impression is that it is merely a sectarian headcount.

Perhaps that is inevitable given the results of the recent Assembly election, which saw unionists lose their majority at Stormont and the DUP out-poll Sinn Fein by a mere hair's breadth. That was a shock to unionists, and the triumphalism of Sinn Fein after that poll has ensured that both parties are determined to maximise their vote.

While Brexit is the reason for this election, here the issue of leaving the EU has been distorted into a poll on where voters stand on the Union or Irish unity. It is the politics of fear versus aspiration.

The hope last November that, as the two political leaders said, their parties were in the Executive facing in the same direction has been dashed in the interim.

The peace process, which was much heralded around the world, is, at best, stalled. At a time when the rest of the UK is showing its abhorrence of terrorism, here the evil spectre of the gunmen and bombers continues to lurk in the shadows with a loyalist feud claiming two lives in recent weeks and dissident republicans continuing to plot violence.

That is not to deny the gains that have been made since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement almost 20 years ago or the risks that politicians took to restore the primacy of democracy over violence. Yet sectarianism still flourishes to a dispiriting degree.

And no longer can we expect someone to ride to our aid. Our sordid squabbles which have seen power-sharing devolution flounder yet again can only be sorted out by ourselves.

While commentators may complain about the ability of our political classes, we should remember that many of them are decent men and women trying to do their best in a society that, for all its changes, remains somewhat abnormal.

The politicians do not operate in a vacuum. Perhaps, uncomfortably for all of us, they merely reflect the people who elect them.

Tomorrow's poll is vitally important to all of us. While events have overtaken the debate on Brexit, leaving the European Union is perhaps the biggest political challenge posed in the UK for generations. Northern Ireland may have voted to remain in the EU but that argument has been lost. If the polls are to be believed, Labour could be closing the gap on the Conservatives, leaving the government with a narrow majority, which would strengthen the hand of local MPs at Westminster, but only if they take their seats to press our concerns over Brexit.

But the count will have barely concluded when the parties here will again have to get down to the business of finding a way to restore devolution at Stormont. The deadline is June 29, but will the result of the general election here aid or hinder that process?

Perhaps we should reflect on the words of Mrs Foster and Mr McGuinness last November when they argued that it was vital for the peace process that politics can move on and that this was essential for the people they represented.

The political climate may have changed in the intervening months, but those words still ring true.

Belfast Telegraph

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