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ireland, irish, ulster, ireland, irish, ulster, Sinn Féin, Irish America

Link between our religion and our politics is fast weakening

(Liam Clarke, Belfast Telegraph)

The census results suggest that the political playbook should be rewritten in Northern Ireland.

The logic of the blocks, of two distinct communities who have to be managed and led separately is starting to break down. The census doesn't ask people how they would vote in a border referendum, but the results on national identity fit fairly closely with the finding of our May LucidTalk poll.

Then, only 7% of those surveyed said they would vote for a united Ireland now.

The census, which surveys the whole population and is more accurate than an opinion poll, found no clear majority for any national identity.

However, British scored highest at 40% with Irish and Northern Irish trailing at 25% and 21% respectively. Many people choose multiple identities.

Additional tables to be released in March will show how these national identities are distributed across the religious groups.

However, since nearly half the population is Catholic and rising, it is clear that Catholics cannot all be identifying as Irish.

This has profound implications.

The figures indicate that many Catholics call themselves Northern Irish, a name that some Sinn Féin ministers have banned from their departments, and some British.

Others must be choosing UK passports, although it is as easy to get an Irish one through the local post office.

Many people, like Rory McIlroy, clearly choose more than one national identity.

It is obvious that the once almost automatic link between religion and political allegiance, though still a powerful factor, is weakening as peace continues. On top of that, as both official turnout figures and polls show, fewer people are motivated to vote at every election.

Peter Robinson (right), the DUP leader, covered some of these bases during his conference speech.

He told delegates that "the siege is over" and that nowadays "our purpose is not to defeat, but by words and deeds to persuade".

He spoke of a politics based on economic issues and appealing across religious denominations.

Yet the big issue now grabbing the headlines is a squabble over flags whipped up by politicians.

It led to death threats to an MP, political offices burned, a murder attempt on a police officer and damage to our reputation.

The census spells the more substantial priorities out. They include poverty, chronic illhealth, an aging population, a yawning skills gap left by our post-primary education system, inadequate public transport and a shrinking manufacturing sector.

These affect people's lives and, as Micheal Martin of Fianna Fáil suggested yesterday, kicking up a fuss about purely symbolic issues looks like a distraction.

The existing parties may yet adopt and refocus.

The speeches Mr Robinson and Martin McGuinness make when abroad indicate that they, at least, know what is needed.

Yet knowing is one thing; doing it could strain their traditional support bases.

If they fall back on a playbook written during orange/green struggles of previous centuries they risk creating a vacuum that will be filled by new political forces or even by further violence.

December 14, 2012

This article appeared in the December 12, 2012 edition of the Belfast Telegraph.



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