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Let's not fool ourselves, parties can't deliver Utopia

Maybe it's time to update Winston Churchill, because, 93 years after his bleakly cynical observation, it's clear that it's not just the "dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone" which continue to bear witness to the integrity and duration of our differences here.

Oh, no. We continue to add to the list: murals, commemoration plots and headstones, painted kerbstones, street signs, parades, our newspapers, pubs, playgrounds, shops, political parties, schools and housing, statues, symbols, nods, winks. And, of course, flags.

We are probably more polarised now than ever before. Indeed, our polarisation has the stamp of authority on it this time, for we agreed to it in a referendum in 1998 and continue to vote for it in elections.

We return the same people, with the same baggage and the same grudges, and then feign surprise, or shock, when they continue to do what they have always done.

We have locked them into a system where mutual hostility is tempered by mutual veto and they're all afraid to move, because they believe it would lead to mutual assured destruction. And we wonder why there's been no progress on building a shared future?

We need to face a simple, albeit very blunt, reality: Northern Ireland is not in a post-conflict situation. We are not even close to a post-conflict situation.

Instead of conflict-resolution, we have conflict stalemate. And, yes, I do accept that, for all of its faults, our stumbling, bumbling process has probably ensured that hundreds of people haven't been killed, or injured. People are alive today because of what we agreed to in April and May 1998.

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But we cannot continue to kid ourselves that the weary mantra – "Sure, it's better than it used to be" – is a sound enough bedrock from which to make the transformative changes we still require.

Forms of words will be constructed to suggest that there is movement and improvement. But in precisely the same way that 'integrated education' morphed into the much more woolly 'shared education' (which often resembles 1950s Alabama bussing – without the bus), so, too, the latest Together: Building a United Community strategy will morph into occasional tea-dances at Belfast interfaces.

None of it has anything to do with the reality of our situation: it's simply a smoke and mirrors PR operation (like an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical on ice) to convince potential investors and assorted national, international and EU funders that all is well in our wee world.

But all is not well in our wee world. So why don't we just get on with 'rubbing along' together and see what happens.

Let the Assembly and Executive confine themselves to the big issues (health, employment, investment), which don't come down to 'Us-versus-Them' votes and petitions of concern every other day.

And maybe, if they can be seen to be making progress there, it will help repair the disconnect and disengagement which is undermining the process and reducing confidence in the institutions.

At the moment, we have the worst of both worlds: incompetent, uninspiring and often irrelevant government and a seemingly congenital inability/reluctance to address legacy and shared future issues.

So let's just concentrate on the everyday aspects of government. Let's, to paraphrase Louis MacNeice, concentrate on the authentic mammon and put aside the bogus gods.

If the time is ever right and people feel comfortable enough to lower their flags and push their symbols into the shade, then I'm sure we'll realise it.

But let's not force the issue, or imagine that we can legislate them into liking, or respecting, each other – let alone building a shared future together.

And let's stop the pretence that five squabbling parties in Stormont can steer the rest of us to some sort of Utopia. They can't. They won't.

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