Belfast Telegraph

New electoral map of Northern Ireland is truly disturbing, but life here is more complex than just two tribes

Our cappuccino culture may reflect a welcome new tolerance here, says Gail Walker, yet too many people still find the old sectarian ways a reassuring presence

The new electoral map of Northern Ireland should give us all pause for thought. It is the starkness that is truly disturbing.

 There was the orange/unionist north-east stretching from East Londonderry down through Antrim, most of Belfast, down to Strangford, Lagan Valley and Upper Bann. And then the mirror image - the dark green/republican south and west, stretching from Foyle, down west of the Bann, Mid Ulster and West Tyrone and Fermanagh, crossing into Armagh and ending in South Down.

The only features to break up the two monoliths were the dark green wedge of West Belfast and the lavender of Sylvia Hermon in North Down.

It was hard to look at that map and not despair. Is this what two decades of "peace" have brought us? An ever-increasing entrenchment? Two tribes. Two parties. Two landmasses.

Is this the future?

It is easy to sneer at the UUP and SDLP, but their seemingly inevitable rolling up by the "Big Two" should be a cause for concern. Apart from the need for plurality, we should remember that it was Hume's SDLP and Trimble's UUP which took the first steps for peace. It was they who made the compromises and took the risks.

And there may come another day when we will need the "moderates" again.

It is perhaps one of the bitter paradoxes of peace. Now that we are (relatively) free of gun-play and violence we can be as extreme as we like. Indeed, the zero-sum game of post-Stormont Agreement politics encourages such partisanship. Which party will best "stand up" for "your" interests and concede as little as possible?

There were, of course, other factors at play last Thursday. The effects of the "first-past-the-post" system, the shock of the close finish of the Assembly election result galvanising unionists, the sense in nationalist communities that Sinn Fein's leadership isn't so directly tainted with the armed campaign. All these factors are pushing towards a "Big Two" duopoly.

For the SDLP and UUP, last Thursday represented a perfect storm. But that is all they seem to face these days. Sunny days seem very far away indeed. Following last week's losses they can - and will - tinker. Expect much talk of new leadership, developing new cadres, re-energising party bases and getting the message across more clearly, opposing forcefully ... all the usual cliches.

But they won't answer the fundamental point. In times of peace, what are they for?

Which leaves us with a series of tricky questions. Are we becoming more divided? More tribal? More diehard? And, if so, what kind of "peace dividend" is that?

To which one can only reply (without much evidence, admittedly) that politics and votes only tell a partial story. We assume that voters are exactly like the parties they vote for - those voting Sinn Fein spend their time dreaming of "the Republic" of Patrick Pearse, while DUP voters are fundamental, not-an-inch merchants who are at their happiest saying "No" to everything.

Is that really your experience of day-to-day life in Northern Ireland? Not wishing to downplay our entrenchment, it isn't mine.

Cliche or no, Northern Ireland has an equally valid expression in the new Cathedral Quarter, Victoria Square and the Waterfront. Young (just about in some cases) people out enjoying themselves, revelling in being just like London, Glasgow and Brussels.

It is easy to sneer at our cappuccino culture, but look at rejuvenated Belfast - the endless events, festivals, concerts, the tourists, the coaches. On these streets you don't hear the old bitterness, the constant obsession with the past, the revelling in the old wounds.

It is also true that maps drawn up like the engagements of the First World War - land won and lost, huge swathes of occupied territory - actually falsify the reality which, as we know, is much more nuanced in terms of population.

Our people do not live in vast ghettoes. Indeed, the peculiar intimacy of our hatreds depends entirely on proximity.

Grimly, this both heartens and disheartens, of course. We are closer together physically than many other contested peoples; but the result of that is ever-further distance in social and cultural terms.

We are vexed by the concept of "equal marriage", yet we do not, in fact, marry across the religious divide. That is one of the great myths of our society. In spite of the nauseating ubiquity of the Love Thing, by far the majority of people here actually still choose their friends and partners from within the tribe.

The fact is that our society is probably just as divided as it ever has been. In fact, now that paramilitary violence has subsided, there is a new licence to be intemperate and abusive on social media and elsewhere; permission given to accuse the other of being evil and oppressive, rather than simply holding a different political opinion.

The electoral map, broad and crude as it is, may not be nuanced enough to reflect the variety of our populations living in constituencies.

But then is it possible at all for any map-maker to draw lines around the multiple divisions which run around housing estates, the length of streets, between the very houses in streets?

We know where the much-abused "peace walls" are - but only those which separate blocs of community difference.

The other walls - those that run through workplaces and schools and places of worship, through bars and hotels and sporting venues, between people born into different traditions - we clearly don't find those as offensive, or as embarrassing.

And it's because they are not embarrassing, because we actually find them comforting and reassuring, that the reality of hope and positivity in Northern Ireland is as remote as ever.

The centre, as they say, has not held after all.

We are all of us being nudged further and further to the margins of goodwill and even of tolerance, forced deeper into the suspicions and resentments which mean so much to our senses of identity.

Is that what we had in mind for peace? Is that what we thought we would settle for in place of being killed?

Maybe so. And if so, that's fine. The point is, of course, no one really gives a damn any more.

Belfast Telegraph

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