This year more than ever, Ive got this strong feeling of politicians living on a different planet at election time. Or like Ashes to Ashes without the Quattro and the ravishing Keeley Hawes. I pick on Adams and Ritchie outgreening each other, Gerry dreaming of being feted by the diaspora and Margaret unambiguously for a united Ireland. But everything about a UI is ambiguous Margaret except the aspiration. Divided unionism is about who shafted whom in 1974 or 1998 or will shaft on May 6. The politicians hope this sort of rhetoric signals strength, commitment, confidence etc. How wrong they are. This is not even dog whistling, more a primal scream of impotence of their own making. Sectarian politics is so last century, running on empty. The good part of it is that the political system has forced them to stay at the table like good children even if they can’t stop squabbling. The penny may drop that theyve nothing left to fight about, nobodys got guns, everybodys won a prize and even the aspiration is not up to them but the people . Lapsing back for elections and obsessed with their rivalry they rely on the people to filter out the crap. Weve become too tolerant of this but whats the alternative? A voters mass boycott is tempting but Im a democrat and wont go there. .
Edna Longley who did such good work in Cultural Traditions is right to say that aspiration prevents the Executive from speaking collectively for Northern Ireland. She points out powerfully that dialogue here is only just beginning. The Platform for Change group are meeting soon to devise an action plan to put to the parties. I suggest writing up a report based on two questions to each party and candidate :
ONE What in detail is in your shared future programme locally in the constituency and regionwide, that will make a difference to your own voters and all others? TWO How do you plan to avoid another threat of train wreck for the next Assembly?
. Otherwise Id leave this election alone. Its too late. I also suggest they eschew macro politics – electoral reform, amended power sharing etc that stand no chance of happening. Instead work with the parties rather than round them and stick to big micro politics, the policies and programme for government that make a difference to peoples lives, like how to get agreement to replace secondary school selection. Its a sad commentary not only on my ignorance but on the lack of serious policy debate on reform that Id be hard put to draw up a detailed agenda myself.
Finally, Edna makes a plea for a new art gallery to house the modern art collection. I can hear just somebody sneering sarcastically thatll wow them in the Falls and Shankill. But if you took them along, it might.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London