Belfast Telegraph

It appears we’re less sectarian, less hate-filled, but push us into a corner and we can still snarl

A new poll finds we are less sectarian but, says Gail Walker, we yearn for change yet won’t let go of the old certainties

It's getting better all the time… kind of… perhaps… According to the latest (deep breath) Northern Ireland Good Relations Indicator Report, this is a less sectarian place than five years ago. Or rather we feel that it is a less sectarian place. Or, to be more strictly accurate, we feel that community relations between Catholics and Protestants are improving.

The key finding is that 52% of adults and 59% of young people feel things are better on this front. Last year's figures were 47% and 52% respectively. Progress 1 Sectarianism 0. Except…

It doesn't really feel like that does it? Or rather it isn't quite the whole picture. In our political sphere there is deadlock - with side-orders of fear and suspicion. Look at the last two election results: in the Stormont poll nationalist voters united behind Sinn Fein to give the RHI/Irish Language Act embroiled DUP a bloody nose and try to snatch the (theoretically useless, remember) idea of being the top party. And at the Westminster election unionist voters turned out in numbers not seen for years to strike back at the nationalist surge.

In both polls the 'centre ground' - to speak rather generously - was effectively thrown into reverse, with both the SDLP and the UUP effectively on political life support machines. The doctors haven't quite given up hope, but the mood music isn't good. A couple of percentage points on the Alliance vote and two Green MLAs does not constitute a revolution in political attitudes.

It wouldn't be too big of a stretch to conclude that attitudes are becoming more deeply entrenched and that we are further away than ever from mutually climbing out of our political/cultural trenches and stumbling hopefully across no-man's land to the loving embrace of the former 'enemy'.

Indeed, it could be that our sectarianism is becoming formalised. Certainly, you get a sense of that from another finding in the report - ironically trumped as being rather positive.

Some 91% said they felt they could be open about expressing their cultural identity in their neighbourhood and 89% felt that about their workplaces. Meanwhile, 76% believed the traditions of both Protestant and Catholic cultures added to the richness of Northern Ireland.

Added? A cynic might say that if we took away the, er, traditions of both Protestant and Catholic cultures, we'd be culturally stripped to the bone.

The strange thing about the survey is that we're all somehow allocated a 'cultural identity' at birth, never to be changed, modified or returned to the shop unused.

Yet who can deny things are getting better here? A bit like 'love', progress is all around us. You can feel it in the air.

Belfast has been transformed beyond recognition. We are a less uptight city.

Look at the thousands who enjoy Culture (note, not Protestant or Catholic) Night. We have a vibrant nightlife. We are on the tourist map. The city has been - whether in terms of architecture or economic infrastructure - recalibrated, rebranded and, to a certain extent, reborn.

But the change is more than buildings. There has been a collective unclenching; not a revolution as such, more a gentle relaxation of muscles kept hyper-taut for decades.

It is both a pleasant but slightly unnerving and disorientating experience.

In our everyday lives, I suspect, fewer of us 'see' ourselves overtly as nationalists or unionists, Protestant or Catholic. We don't greedily hoard the injustices that history has served up. We don't wish to provoke the traditional enemy. We're not that interested in 'victory' anymore.

Open up Facebook and see the plethora of issue politics or wider cultural politics. For every one Orange or Green page, there will be more pages trumpeting a new style of politics and ideas of belonging. True, some of this is the merest gesture politics, but isn't that the point?

Gestures towards a normal 'polity' that is interested in the environment, social policy, hastily adapted US-style culture wars.

Still, you can't help get the feeling much of this is 'add on' attitudes - not 'instead of'. We can ramble on about Trump, Brexit, North Korea. Indeed, at times we now revel in it. We love going for a swim in the sea of normality but we're not keen to venture too far out… we don't want to lose sight of those Orange and Green lifebelts.

And that's where we are - divided selves. Yearning for change but refusing to let go (entirely) of the old certainties.

We play little sleights of hand, small tricks on ourselves. As, on the surface, we grow more tolerant, we cordon off and rebrand our past - hence the generally positive culture ratings in the latest report. Sure, isn't it really a bit like Pride? Doesn't it provide a wee bit of local colour? We have a kind of twisted nostalgia for the old days where at least you knew who you were - look at us being buck eejits (conveniently forgetting that being a buck eejit involved causing murder and mayhem).

In other words, it isn't that our new normality is a 'lie' as such, but it is a bit of glad-handing, an act. We are less sectarian, less hate-filled, less bombastic.

But push us into a corner and we're still capable of bearing the fangs, snarling with hatred and less than perfect reason.

And every election we are pushed - or push ourselves? - into a corner. Can't let the other side win - what will happen to 'us'?

Nor should we delude ourselves that it is the working class alone clinging on for dear life to the old shibboleths. In the swish offices, boardrooms, 'club' there will also be those - orthodox to the last - hanging on to the old ways. Business as usual.

I've no statistical evidence but it seems obvious that all those voting for the old politics aren't out there in the dark estates and the mean streets. Nope, they're sitting beside you enjoying an almond slice and a frappachino.

They're pushing their way around Victoria Square wondering if their credit card can take much more of a bashing. They're salsa-ing away at Culture Night.

In other words, they're very much like you.

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