Politics of division in Northern Ireland persists

Demographic maps highlight the unionist and nationalist enclaves

 

It is deeply worrying that almost 20 years after the Belfast Agreement society in Northern Ireland remains deeply divided along sectarian lines. The Irish Times special report ‘Separate Lives: The Divided North’, produced in collaboration with the journalism website The Detail, outlined the hard reality that in Belfast in particular the unionist and nationalist communities live in separate enclaves.

It is astonishing that there are now 109 “peace walls” across the North. They are a tourist attraction for visitors but the ugly reality is that they openly advertise the bitter divisions that still prevail in a dysfunctional society.

This division suits the two dominant political parties, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin, whose success in the recent Assembly election was helped by the way the election campaign descended into a tribal head count. The two parties have built and maintained their electoral base by focusing on the issues that divide the two communities rather than trying to build common ground between them.

A minor consolation of the Assembly election was that more than 30 per cent of the vote went to parties that made some attempt to build bridges between the communities. It was sad that Mike Nesbitt, the Ulster Unionists Party leader, who stuck his neck out by asking his party supporters to transfer to the SDLP, was the major casualty of the election.

Even though his party’s vote went up slightly, the UUP lost seats and Mr Nesbitt took the honourable course by stepping down as party leader. His vote transfer call helped the SDLP to survive the storm but the outcome will hardly encourage a similar initiative in the future.

The dangerous aspect of ongoing sectarian division, graphically illustrated by demographic maps featured in the report, is that society in the North is ill equipped to cope with the stresses and strains imposed by Brexit. In the longer term, a serious reduction in the €10 billion subsidy from the British exchequer looks inevitable. Northern Ireland is ill equipped to deal with the inevitable pressures on social cohesion that will impose.

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