Spirit of co-operation sitting on sidelines


Election Diary: Only a tiny minority votes on any basis other than 'tribe', writes Deaglán de Bréadún

To really capture the essence of an election in Northern Ireland you need to be not a reporter but a Monty Python scriptwriter. While elements of the media and even some of the politicians make a noble effort to highlight "the issues" and discuss water charges or pensions as if this were a normal society, the fact remains that only a tiny minority votes on any basis other than loyalty to what some people call "tribe" and others "nationality".

This is where Monty Python comes in, because it is only in the world of comic fantasy that one can imagine most Protestant and Catholic voters in a Northern Ireland constituency discussing the candidates on the basis of their policies on education or pensions rather than the constitutional issue.

Protestant voter: "I'm going with Sinn Féin this time because they have a very imaginative approach to the health system." Catholic voter: "I respect your point of view but the Ulster Unionists are very sound on education issues so I'm giving them my 'X' on polling day."

An unlikely dialogue, for sure. Making it all that much more surreal is the fact that a conventional election campaign is going on in the larger island next door, where health, education, pensions and all those other issues really will sway people's decisions on the day. But that campaign is for the same parliament as the election in Northern Ireland.

Is it any wonder foreigners find the entire scenario so hard to understand? A nationalist voter in Mid-Ulster heard me complaining, in my Southern accent, about the inconvenience of changing from euro to sterling when I crossed the Border. "Don't worry," he said, "there'll be a United Ireland soon enough." As he continued talking, it was clear that he wasn't joking and sincerely believed the tide was running in the direction of unity at last.

The old dream never dies and has been given a boost by the growing patches of green on the Northern Ireland map which are likely to increase further after the votes are counted later this week. Meanwhile, on the other side, there is a deeper and more intense shade of orange.

So despite the peace and calm that reign for the most part these days, are we heading towards an even more cataclysmic confrontation further down the road? Nationalist expectations and self-confidence are growing and it is hard to imagine that they can be forever contained within the existing constitutional structure. At the same time, there is little "give" on the unionist side where people are increasingly receptive to the hardline message of the Rev Ian Paisley's DUP.

In this environment, one has to admire the idealism of those who seek out the middle ground when it often looks as if there is no such place. Posters for the Alliance Party point out that "Tribal politics costs". Below that message, in a different colour, is the Alliance logo. But if you are colour-blind, it reads: "Tribal politics costs Alliance". Even more idealistic are the radical folk who have located their posters half-way between the loyalist strongholds of Donegall Pass and Sandy Row in Belfast. "Capitalism cannot be reformed," they tell us. "Boycott the elections. Spoil your ballot."

If only the Northern Ireland election were about the merits and demerits of capitalism, it would be a wonderful situation. Tribes predate the capitalist system, unfortunately. Yes, there have been moments, during the 1930s, for example, when Protestant and Catholic workers united on social issues but it was never going to last as long as the constitutional faultline remained.

Over in West Tyrone, Dr Kieran Deeny, Independent candidate for Westminster, has built an impressive cross-community coalition, including members of the new ethnic groups in the constituency, to prevent the downgrading of the hospital in Omagh. But there is little sign as yet of that co-operative spirit permeating the rest of Northern Ireland.

Back in the heady days of the Civil Rights movement, idealistic students thought the two sides would see the logic of combining to achieve the shared goal of a better life for everyone. It turned out to be a tragically superficial reading of the situation.

Over three decades later, the constitutional issue still stands in the way: logic and common sense dictate that it should be dealt with at last, in a manner that both sides can accept.