Belfast Telegraph

Mending our divided society makes sense economically

By Naomi Long

Winning the Westminster seat in east Belfast was a coming of age for Alliance, which celebrates its 40th birthday this year.

However, I believe it also demonstrates a maturing of politics more widely and confirms that, where people have a clear and credible alternative to tribal politics, they opt for it in significant numbers.

Gaining the first Alliance MP was an important milestone; however, I think the wider message of the Westminster election results was the consensus in relation to how we move forward together as a region. Those who stood in opposition to sharing power at Stormont did not make the breakthrough which they hoped for, with people instead endorsing parties who have committed to the process.

People clearly want their politicians working together to build a more stable, peaceful and prosperous future for us all. However, there is little evidence that other parties are actively responding to that challenge.

The Westminster campaign was punctuated with squabbles over sectarian voting pacts and, despite the fact that voters didn't endorse that strategy, it has continued to be front and centre of the debate since the election and may well continue to build momentum in the run up to next year's Assembly elections.

Turning those elections into a sectarian head-count would be a missed opportunity.

Those with whom I have spoken, both during and since the election, are less interested in the power struggles within and between unionism and nationalism than they are in the current economic challenges facing us all.

People are focused on bread and butter issues like jobs, hospitals, education, pensions and keeping a roof over their heads. The Budget offered little comfort and it is clear that there are some painful and difficult decisions ahead for the Executive.

That's why it has never been more important for us to look seriously at healing the division in our society. Better community relations are not just a good social objective, they also make economic sense.

The cost of segregation has been estimated at around £1bn per annum. That's about £1,000 per Northern Ireland household every year. It's socially and financially unsustainable and we need to be willing to tackle it.

If we are going to build a better future for everyone, it has to be shared.

Tribal politics can't and won't deliver - it has to be from the centre, forward.

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