This week’s BBC Spotlight programme combined a poll and a political discussion. Analysis has been widespread; however, the key point for me was this: both the discussion and the poll showed Northern Ireland as it is.
Firstly, the typical response to the five-party slanging match which passes for political discussion is to dismiss it as “politicians”. But it isn’t. Politicians are elected by the people and are representative of them. Put two border Protestants, two inner-city Catholics and a North Down academic in a room and the result will be the same. The “debate” – actually three groups of people talking across each other completely at crossed purposes, was typical of Northern Ireland, not atypical.
Secondly, we saw Unionists talk not of promotion of “the Union” but of “Unionists”, right down to Arlene Foster’s demonstration that she views anyone who does not agree with her on symbols as a “Nationalist” when she completely misread the Alliance Party’s (longstanding and entirely consistent) flags policy. Danny Kennedy overly and deliberately displayed an interest only in “Unionist” poll responses – the very definition of sectarianism, as if other views don’t count.
Thirdly, we saw Nationalists’ complete inability to deal with the reality that most of their assumed constituency don’t actually share their constitutional objective – hardly surprisingly, as they have never outlined this “United Ireland” they dream of and sensible people will always choose certainty over uncertainty. Alex Attwood was shown up at the end trying to deny his party’s objective was to remove the Union Flag completely from Belfast City Hall (when this is obviously the case) and thus claiming a compromise which wasn’t his; Gerry Kelly was shown up on the radio the following morning by blatantly refusing to engage in debate on the grounds his opponent was not in Sinn Fein – absolutism reminiscent of Orwell and certainly a million miles from any form of democracy. Fundamentally, in other words, we have two sides completely uncomfortable when confronted with rational debate and the need to represent Northern Ireland in all its diversity, rather than a minority section of it – if we’re honest, this is true of the general population, so small wonder it is true of the politicians elected by that population.
Fourthly, what does the poll tell us? With the usual caveats, I would suggest:
- the “gap” in Unionism is on the harder-line not more “liberal” side, with 45% supporting ongoing protests and 75% demanding the Union Flag permanently on City Hall;
- “Liberal” Unionists are not that numerous and need to reach across the traditional divide in a single progressive movement to generate serious numbers, but also they should be able to do so easily as a lot of Catholics are not truly represented by the SDLP or Sinn Fein (but are also never going to be “Unionist”);
- Catholics will never be Unionist, are not pro-British, but are as likely as not to be pro-UK (note well the distinctions);
- the Alliance Party is seriously under-performing compared to the share of the electorate (25-44%) who essentially agree with it – noting also that as many as two thirds of that electorate may currently be Nationalist- rather than Unionist-leaning (as it is more open to change).
The lesson for all sides is – deal with Northern Ireland as it is, and the rewards will be yours!