Belfast Telegraph

Orange and green do not represent our 'true colours'

The online True Colours survey could change the way you think about politics for ever, says Nick Garbutt

Political debate in Northern Ireland rarely gets beyond the tribal. People tend to be Orange or Green and vote accordingly. Political division is invariably within, rather than across the sectarian divide with people voting for parties according to how hardline nationalist or unionist they perceive them to be.

In some respects this is inevitable - it is part of our history and our identity - and is a symptom of a society recovering from recent conflict.

When it comes to the local Assembly elections the so-called 'national' question is irrelevant.

That is because the Assembly that we elect does not have the power to alter the border with the Republic - that's a matter we can decide via referendum or through an agreement between the parliaments at Westminster and Dublin.

The Assembly has specific powers dealing with such matters as Health, Education, Housing, the Environment, the Arts, Sport, Social Services, the local economy.

Yet few voters take a serious look at the parties' policies in relation to these matters - never mind getting as far as reading their manifestos.

Consequently, we vote according to tribal patterns. This is a genuine pity and marks a failing of democracy here.

That's why we devised True Colours, which is an attempt to get voters thinking and talking about policy and, therefore, engaging in real politics.

We asked the main political parties questions about key policy. We analysed the answers and then, together with the Belfast Telegraph and our colleagues at 31 Interactive, we designed an online survey which will show people which party's policies they are closest to.

The decisions that the next Assembly make will have profound effects on all our lives. Critical decisions will have to be made about Health which will affect the levels of care we have in our hospitals and in the community.

There will be a massive call to be made on whether to introduce a lower level of corporation tax here, with the consequent impact on the block grant.

There will be a decision on water charges and, for many, most crucial of all a final decision on whether we have academic selection for schools.

Until now we have voted according to whether candidates are Orange or Green rather than on what they have to say on these issues.

Yet the question of whether we remain in the UK, or become part of the Republic, is irrelevant to the Assembly elections. By ignoring this we are doing ourselves a disservice.

Last week, First Minister Peter Robinson said that Northern Ireland was facing its first election where the main issues were everyday ones. We need to take him at his word and vote accordingly.

A friend who used to be very active in the SDLP took True Colours and discovered he was actually closest to the DUP in terms of policy priorities. In my own case, my test showed I was closest to Sinn Fein - a party I would never have considered voting for.

This is not going to change my own voting intentions, but it has certainly made me think and it will undoubtedly lead to me asking very hard questions of any candidates who do show up at my door.

What we need more than anything in Northern Ireland is normal politics. I believe that True Colours is a contribution to that process.

Please do take our simple online test and find out what your True Colours are. You will probably never think about politics in quite the same way again.

Try the survey at: http://www. belfasttelegraph.co.uk/vote2011

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