Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Take rise of 'neithers' with a pinch of salt

The findings of the Life and Times Survey showing that half of the population in Northern Ireland describes itself as neither unionist or nationalist are bound to raise more than a few eyebrows
The findings of the Life and Times Survey showing that half of the population in Northern Ireland describes itself as neither unionist or nationalist are bound to raise more than a few eyebrows

Editor's Viewpoint

The findings of the Life and Times Survey showing that half of the population in Northern Ireland describes itself as neither unionist or nationalist are bound to raise more than a few eyebrows.

While this result is in keeping with others dating back to 2006 suggesting that the 'neithers' are a growing constituency, the answers given to the survey do not tally closely with election results.

Admittedly, Alliance made a significant surge in both the local government and European elections.

However, that was in part due to the party standing in more constituencies in the former and adopting a strong pro-EU stance in the latter, mirroring the general opinion on the issue in the province.

However, in the previous elections on which we can base any argument - the General Election and Assembly election, both in 2017 - the DUP and Sinn Fein, the polar points of political opinion, gained 65% and 56% of the votes cast in those respective polls.

That asks the question, where were the neithers? Did they abstain, or did they vote along traditional lines?

The odd thing is that the neithers do not necessarily see Alliance as their party of first choice, even if it also designates itself as neither nationalist nor unionist.

So, the question remains, if the neithers are answering the survey honestly, why are they not making a bigger impact?

We know that the DUP and Sinn Fein may have swallowed very hard and shared a Stormont dalliance for 10 years, but they certainly seem estranged now.

Many loveless marriages have lasted longer.

The two big parties know they only have to ratchet up the fear factor - the union is under threat, or the unionists are trying to do nationalists down again - to ensure the vast majority of voters rally to their respective causes.

We all know that health, education and jobs are the big issues in Northern Ireland, yet how many people vote on the social policies of the parties unless, like the Irish language or same-sex marriage or abortion reform, they are used as cudgels to beat opponents with?

Our young people may be less tribal, but do the perceptive leave and the rest become absorbed in our endless squabbles, mirroring the behaviour of their forebears?

We really need a strong centre in our politics to make it truly democratic and capable of changing outlooks.

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