Belfast Telegraph

Why national identity must no longer dominate politics

The UUP is the surprise front runner in our True Colours survey, finds Robin Wilson

Politics in Northern Ireland has become like a disconnected flywheel - still spinning as if nothing had changed, but no longer connected to the society on whose energy it once fed.

A century ago, its organising categories - 'unionist' versus 'nationalist' - meant a lot. During the third Home Rule crisis and the subsequent war of independence and (original) northern 'Troubles', there really did seem only to be two alternative locations for an Ireland fractured along lines of religiously-derived national identity - either British or Irish.

Fast-forward to today and the past becomes a foreign country. Northern Ireland has a (more or less) stable regional administration, based on equal citizenship.

This is perfectly capable of benefiting simultaneously from UK membership while maximising the potential for collaboration with our fellow citizens of this island.

Indeed, our biggest danger is that unionists and nationalists cancel themselves out, so that devolution means a navel-gazing involution.

The Belfast Telegraph's True Colours online poll - in conjunction with Asitis Consulting and 31 Interactive - demonstrates how the citizens of this region, whether they have an Irish passport, a British passport, or both, are already moving on.

Asked to consider their policy alignments, almost a third of supposedly 'nationalist' respondents found their natural home in a 'unionist' party, while more than a quarter of their purportedly 'unionist' counterparts engaged in the opposite form of political cross-dressing. And that is before we mention the 'others' - as numerous as the 'nationalist' definers.

And which party's policies came out top? Well, well, well: the much-maligned Ulster Unionist Party. This is a party slated by many commentators as headed for electoral oblivion - and it may be - but if only they had a wider perspective, they would understand. A World Values Survey periodically tests the responses of citizens around the globe to standard political questions. One of them asks where the individual would position themselves on the spectrum between Left and Right.

Interestingly, far from these being foreign terms to respondents in Northern Ireland, in the 1999-2001 survey marginally fewer than the world average of those sampled within the region - little over one-in-five - was unable to describe their Left-Right position. Remarkably, the mean position here was exactly the same as the world average - a little right of centre.

And which party in the region can best be defined as a little right of centre? The Ulster Unionists, of course. So here is the final irony. If the political class and the media abandoned the obsolete language of the past in favour of the politics that has defined the rest of Europe for a century, the party that would be likely to predominate is . . . the same party that ran Northern Ireland, then as a party of Protestant-monopoly power, for half of that time.

The reason I am chair of Platform for Change is because the organisation wants to see a wider renewal of public engagement with politics and a normalisation of the political agenda towards day-to-day issues - whatever party individuals may support.

To that end, we have been organising and supporting hustings in advance of the Assembly election. Tonight in Belfast, the BBC's Jim Fitzpatrick will be chairing hustings at the Crescent Arts Centre, University Road (7pm), while on Monday (April 18) the roadshow moves to the Market Place Theatre, Armagh (7pm).


From Belfast Telegraph