Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Let’s seize the moment to bridge the divide

Is Northern Ireland politics always going to be dominated by an Orange and Green tribal stalemate? That’s the question being asked by the Belfast Telegraph as it kicks off a week-long series of articles.

It’s a debate that will feature opinions from across the political spectrum.

Each contributor has been asked to think about whether politics and politicians can move on from the old debates and focus on social and economic, bread and butter issues.

Allied to this is the key question of whether middle-ground, cross-community politics can be built up as an alternative to sectarian |divisions permanently dominating the landscape.

It’s a good time to have this debate as the Assembly winds down for its summer break.

Doubts over the durability of devolution appear to have been finally resolved, with policing and justice powers now transferred and pro-Agreement parties |mopping up the vast bulk of the votes in the General Election.

Stormont looks like it’s here to stay and the chief task for MLAs and ministers now is to tackle the challenges created by the serious public spending squeeze.

It is not the time for tired old quarrels.

Yet, the pressures for even more tribal entrenchment are strong. The General Election campaign witnessed much aggravation and agonising over unionist and |nationalist pacts.

It is more than possible that next year’s Assembly election |battle will be dominated by the issue of whether Martin McGuinness will emerge as First Minister.

But, as the public sector faces a battering, with jobs and services in jeopardy, politics surely has to be about much more than |headcounts.

The purpose of this week’s debate is to challenge the status quo — not to pretend there are easy answers, or that change will come overnight.

Some of the wider questions that should be considered include:

  • Does Assembly politics have to be locked in the unionist/nationalist pattern, given that the consent principle was enshrined in the Belfast and St Andrew’s agreements? The consent principle means the border question is primarily for a referendum to decide — not elections.
  • If elections are not about voting parties in — and out — of power on the basis of their social and economic platforms, how will politicians be held to account for their handling of the looming public spending crisis?
  • Can the Stormont system — with its mandatory coalition, all the main parties in power and no one in opposition — be reformed without undermining key parts of the overall political settlement?
  • Does having a political system enmeshed in tribal division hold Northern Ireland back economically and help project a damaging image to the outside world and potential investors?

It’s worth remembering the words of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg when he addressed the US investment conference in Belfast in 2008.

“The fact is, the best and the brightest don't want to live in a city defined by division,” he said.

“They don't want to live behind walls. And they don't want to live in a place where they are judged by their faith or their family name.”

Is it too much to hope that the walls might some day start coming down in politics?

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