Belfast Telegraph

Bigger issues than tribalism being ignored and no one seems to care

By Lyra McKee

The latest statistics from the Electoral Reform Society showing that just 4% of Catholics would give their first-preference vote to a unionist party and 2% of Protestants to a nationalist candidate could be interpreted as depressing.

They suggest that voters haven't moved away from tribal notions of identity. Birthright, not belief, it seems decides what way voters swing.

Yet, is it a bad thing if Catholics and Protestants stick with their traditional constitutional positions? The default position among those in the 'middle ground' is yes, and until two or three years ago I would have agreed with them.

A childhood spent growing up near an interface had taught me to loathe any form of tribal allegiance. Republicanism and unionism/loyalism were, for me, inevitably intertwined with conflict, hatred and an aversion to progress.

Yet, the reality is that neither unionism/loyalism nor republicanism are inherently bad.

The problem is how they're interpreted or applied.

The old line about a Bible in one man's hand being as bad as a whiskey bottle in another's springs to mind.

To say that Catholics and Protestants sticking with their traditional constitutional positions indicates a lack of civic progress is to ignore how their political beliefs are rooted in culture and community.

Being a republican/nationalist is about more than wanting a united Ireland, as is being a unionist or loyalist. Each position comes with its own set of traditions, culture, ties, even language and dialect - and to expect people to abandon that in the name of "progress" is both shortsighted and an impossible bar by which to measure progress against.

Worse, it plays into a broader, unhelpful narrative that pits unionists and nationalists against each other. It suggests that, as long as people subscribe to either, the peace process is a failure, because the two cannot peacefully co-exist.

It's this assumption that our politicians - and our country - seems to operate on: that the conflict hasn't ended and there's still an enemy that needs to be defeated, and they're living on the other side of the peace wall.

Yet, that's not true. And as long as we believe it is, we're setting the bar pretty low for how we expect our public representatives to behave.

The peace process will not be a failure because we did not abandon our political beliefs or cultures. It will be a failure because we did not learn that each other's existence is not something to be objected to.

The reaction to Mike Nesbitt's vote transfer proposal - which has, frankly, been sickening - shows that this belief is alive and well.

A united Ireland will not happen without a sizeable chunk of the unionist population consenting. Nor will the sky fall in because Mike Nesbitt gives a second-preference to the party he wants to govern alongside.

My fears for Northern Ireland don't lie in tribal differences, but in bigger problems that get lost in the neverending debate about identity: our spiralling suicide rate, young people who think dying is an option, but a life lived in Northern Ireland isn't, our abysmal lack of mental health facilities, a job-creation strategy that focuses on creating minimum-wage call centre roles that crush the souls of our youth and sends them scurrying for other shores.

The peace process delivered peace and nothing else for my generation. We're still dying, even though the conflict is over. And no one seems to care.

  • Lyra McKee is a freelance journalist based in Belfast

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