Saturday, March 10, 2007


"I believe that democracy and terrorism can never co-exist in government, but clearly the electorate takes a different view" ... the words yesterday of Robert McCartney, former MP for North Down and breakaway Unionist standing on a no-engagement-with-Sinn-Féin ticket, issued before (presumably) shuffling off to spend more time with his family.

Electoral choices forty years ago were easy: Unionist or Nationalist. Then the Nationalist Party gave way to the newly-formed SDLP, and the IRA hunger strikes attracted the more radical nationalists into Sinn Féin. Meanwhile, Unionists became ever-more distrustful of the Ulster Unionist Party and, latterly, have left it in droves for the more radical politics of Paisley's DUP. Politics polarised in the late nineties, and Wednesday's Assembly elections showed that this shift has continued.

Today's parties of choice are the DUP and Sinn Féin, occupying the very opposite ends of the political spectrum, and to many people a vote for anyone else is a vote wasted. For the teens and twentysomethings they're the sexy places to be, the parties with clear messages and burgeoning followings. Notably, the radicalism of each feeds the radicalism of the other.

As we move into the coalition-building process - assuming there will be one - the unhealthy nature of this tribalism will be put into sharp relief. Can the DUP and SF really be expected to work together, or are we going to have Italian-style coalition crises every six months? We'll see. Interesting how Ian Paisley mooted yet another power-sharing hurdle yesterday, saying that Sinn Féin now had to repent. (As a Christian I agree - Republicans have a history of murder and insurrection of which they should repent before God - who will forgive instantly - but Unionists also need to repent of the 50 years of subjugation of Roman Catholics here).

This polarisation feeds itself and is unhealthy. I'm hopeful, though, that by giving more political power than ever to the radical wings they will see the need for constructive dialogue - and for making concessions - and so, in the end, become less radical. Again, we'll see.


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