Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Everyone suffers in a polarised Orange versus Green battle

If the voters of Northern Ireland thought local politics was a toxic wasteland, they haven't seen anything yet. It is set to reach a new low in the coming weeks as the parties draw up their battle lines for the December 12 poll
If the voters of Northern Ireland thought local politics was a toxic wasteland, they haven't seen anything yet. It is set to reach a new low in the coming weeks as the parties draw up their battle lines for the December 12 poll

Editor's Viewpoint

If the voters of Northern Ireland thought local politics was a toxic wasteland, they haven't seen anything yet. It is set to reach a new low in the coming weeks as the parties draw up their battle lines for the December 12 poll.

North Belfast, so long described as the cockpit of the Troubles, has brought that reputation with it into peacetime. The UUP and SDLP have decided not to run candidates for the seat held by the DUP's deputy leader Nigel Dodds, effectively making it a straight sectarian headcount between the unionist party and Sinn Fein.

The SDLP has denied that it is a pact, instead attempting to cloak its withdrawal from the contest under a threadbare Brexit flag of convenience. Its argument is that it wants to maximise the return of pro-Remain candidates in the General Election.

In return Sinn Fein has said it will not stand in South Belfast and is advising voters to support the SDLP candidate. The republican party and the SDLP are also standing aside in North Down and East Belfast to improve the chances of Lady Sylvia Hermon and Alliance leader Naomi Long winning those seats.

The UUP's pay-off for not standing in North Belfast is a free run against Sinn Fein in Fermanagh/South Tyrone.

For those who like the 'them' and 'us', Orange and Green, politics this promises to be a great election but very many people will see it as anti-democratic rather than an exercise in democracy.

It is only 50 years ago that thousands of nationalists were taking to the streets of Northern Ireland to demand 'one man, one vote' yet the SDLP is unilaterally deciding to disenfranchise thousands of its own voters by refusing to stand in North Belfast in particular.

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The peace process and the subsequent establishment of devolution was built on the courage of the SDLP and UUP, but now both are displaying simple opportunism which does neither's long term ambitions much good.

One or both may get members returned to Westminster this time, but will the big battalions of the DUP and Sinn Fein wipe them out again when the Brexit dust settles?

What Northern Ireland needs - especially given the tentative signs in the local government and European elections of an electoral surge to the middle ground - is to give voters the widest possible choice.

If, as the SDLP maintains, the DUP's pro-Brexit stance was disastrous then that should be tested at the ballot box rather than making it a simple Green versus Orange election.

Similarly if voters are dissatisfied with Sinn Fein's abstentionist policy, let them give their verdict through the polls where they have a number of parties to vote for rather than being corralled into a straight fight.

What all this does is increase unionist paranoia over the constitutional question. The DUP and UUP see these moves and the constant demands for a border referendum as part of a pan-nationalist campaign for a united Ireland and are unsettled.

As The Independent Reporting Commission in its second report on paramilitarism points out, the absence of devolved government and the concerns over Brexit are making the task of tackling republican and loyalist gangs immeasurably difficult and an election campaign which ratchets up the tension even higher is in no one's interest.

Our numerous social problems - the NHS, education and lack of investment in infrastructure - are being cast aside in the eternal battle of identity. Ironically, both Protestant and Catholics suffer as a result.

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