Why are softer political attitudes failing to transform the political landscape?

Two overviews in the Irish Times share the analysis that while the old identity issues will probably be  with us always, much of the old animosity is subsiding. It’s always risky when a journalist relies on the feeling in his waters to make a case but Gerry Moriarty ‘s claim rings true, that..

… while these degrees of separation probably always will be with us, the place doesn’t seem as bitter any more. The shades of orange and green seem more muted. There are differences of identity but some cross-fertilisation too: people can hold to their nationalist or unionist convictions but at times stand comfortably in the other’s space or in shared spaces.

Peter Shirlow , demographer extraordinaire faces the future with confidence and hope, without quite knowing what answers it may hold to the old question, naturally.

There are simply more shared global-like lifestyles. Social mobility has been the revolution that has changed lifestyles and thus attitudes more than the use of arms and the rhetoric of sectarian diatribe. Its fundamental force lies in the capacity to subvert loyalty to the highest bidder.

We await the latest results from the 2011 census but the data from the 2001 census suggested that demographic parity between Catholics and Protestants would come about 2035. Obviously, the constitutional position will be asserted through the principle of consent and demographic shifts. But I doubt a small Catholic majority will be the sudden end game for Northern Ireland as some unionists have learned that Catholic inclusion attenuates Northern nationalists’ sense of Irishness.

Moreover, they have also concluded, somewhat late in the day, that the Republic and its citizens are not hastily demanding a nation once again. Peter Robinson has probably recognised the need to keep “Catholics on board” as the only way to perpetuate the life of Northern Ireland. Some sections of the nationalist community see unification as an aspiration, but they also sense that it may affect their collective wallets. The collapse of the Celtic Tiger has definitely concentrated unification-driven mindsets.

Clearly, the unionist community is for sharing power but not for shifting regarding unification, whether small “u” unionist or otherwise. The big problem for those who want unification is how to stimulate the type of desire that once existed.

It is of course possible to argue that once parity is reached, a united Ireland becomes naturally more viable even to the large minority whose unionism is soft. The initiative passes to unity. That is surely what Martin McGuinness and Sinn Fein are banking on and accounts for their strategically conciliatory attitude to unionism – still well ahead in emotional intelligence to the DUP’s corresponding stance.

I’d enter one cautious caveat to the cautious optimism and one question which has not yet been satisfactorily answered.  The question is, why is such consistent showing of softer political attitudes not reflected in voting intention and the political system, beyond a decline in voting itself? Many in the divided majority of unionists and nationalists combined still seems psychologically in thrall to a considerable extent to their respective extremists, whatever they tell pollsters repeatedly.  Others may be satisfied that their party champions are doing just enough to reach out to the other side, thank you, while protecting their backs and biding their time.

My caveat comes from my generation’s experience. In the 1960s with Vatican 2, watery O’Neillism and a comprehensive welfare state in being,  much of the middle class ( at least) were beginning to take it for granted that all this sectarian stuff was gently fading away, without knowing how or where it would end up. We should not take atmospheric improvements for granted this time.  Slugger comment should lead by example.

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