Belfast Telegraph

Survey shows true colours of Ulster's divided society

Persuading voters to avoid tribal choices is a massive challenge, says Chris Donnelly

The Belfast Telegraph's True Colours online survey allows voters to identify their place on the traditional political spectrum after answering questions which typically divide political parties of the centre, left and right.

Elsewhere, it would be a useful tool to inform, and perhaps even determine, voting options. But that simply is not a realistic option in Northern Ireland and there is little to suggest that we are moving inexorably in that direction.

Even the sense of foreboding lingering, due to the chilly winds of the advancing financial storm, will not be sufficient to transform the voting behaviour of a society steeped in traditions which clearly delineate the parties belonging to one side or the other. While it is somewhat unpopular to recognise this reality, all the main parties understand it.

Hence the bizarre narrative provided by the DUP's party political broadcast, which presented a picture of marital bliss painted as the narrator lauded the party's governing achievements before the harrowing punchline delivered at the end warned of a dire future were Sinn Fein to become the largest party at Stormont.

Yet political parties are only responding to what they believe to be the true state of affairs within the community; something which Peter Robinson boldly asserted when he proclaimed that the race to become First Minister was the main talking-point on the doors.

He knows this is difficult to dispute as, in the likely event of the DUP being returned as the largest party, he is pretty much free to suggest the determining factor contributing to that success.

Unlocking the door to a future where the voting pool for all parties is not restricted by religious affiliation, or national identity, requires a transformation in how we view the identities of the two communities.

The Alliance Party, and to a lesser extent the SDLP, have always sought to downplay the role of identity as part of their respective strategies to attract cross-community support. The limited nature of their successes illustrates why it is incumbent upon all parties to reconsider strategies to bridge the electoral divide.

It is in the gift of parties to liberate the electorate if they so desire by finding a means of genuinely accommodating the expression of the others' identity within their respective political visions.

At times, some of our political leaders have stumbled over such transcendent policies, such as when the first republican mayor of Belfast, Alex Maskey, displayed a Union flag alongside the Irish Tricolour in his official chambers - a gesture unnerving to many in its generosity.

Yet Sinn Fein's confusing response to the visit of Queen Elizabeth to Dublin is a perfect example of how parties can allow themselves to be shackled and restricted by history.

A much more invigorating republican response would have been to use this opportunity to affirm their support for the legitimacy of expressions of the British unionist identity in Ireland today, while canvassing robustly for a reciprocal appreciation of the rights of northern nationalists by bringing the franchise for Irish presidential elections to the north.

This would have the effect of extending a hand to unionists, while taking forward the republican objective of equality between the traditions in an all-Ireland context.

There are plenty of Protestants who admire the left-leaning policies of Sinn Fein - just as there are Catholics who have an affinity with the pro-business rhetoric of the DUP. But helping those potential voters make history's leap is the task political parties must face up to as we take our next steps forward.

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