Shirlow on the gap between slowly shifting attitudes and political positions

Peter Shirlow has to deal with politicians and so cannot afford to sound completely exasperated or polemical. Informed  by his detailed work in the communities  he discusses the perceived gap between public attitudes and the starker political  positions in the Belfast Telegraph, in the light of the recent LucidTalk poll commissioned by the paper.

I would only add that the gap between slowly shifting attitudes and the political choices available is not necessarily a contradiction. People vote for a bottom line because they distrust and often still fear the other side and yet would welcome some cross community movement and even take part in it. The zero sum game is still played in politics alongside little trials of something new. Politically there’s  a mighty problem but also a great opportunity for  new approaches . By the way how fares  the “Stormont Executive’s Inquiry Into Building A United Community”  Shirlow refers to? See if this  report one year on impresses you with its  strategy and forward thinking.

The border poll idea is I fear a displacement activity at the moment. Opposite reasons for holding one confuse the opinion poll results. According to the ( improvised) law on the subject, a border  poll cannot be held to as it were, call Sinn Fein’s bluff , only when there are unspecified  grounds for believing that Unity might win majority support , as has been explained in earlier posts.

Shirlow extracts:

There is a mood in Northern Ireland for debate, proposition, supposition and dialogue beyond Stormont. A quiet revolution of academics, community leaders and social commentators who are jigging people along to speak and discuss more about civil society and the role it can – and undoubtedly should – play.

This reflects all shades of opinions and is vitally important in terms of creating spaces for meaningful and representative conversations

f anything, what we are increasingly finding is plurality of thinking within the blocs of orange, green and other. That diversity is clearly evident in the Belfast Telegraph/LucidTalk poll

But are we prepared for a border poll? If it happened today, the composition of the vote would fall closely along community background lines. The trick that the main parties have failed to achieve has been to draw more of “the other sort” over to their cause.

A close vote in the future would mean voters had not crossed tribal boundaries and a referendum would, in effect, be a mere head-counting exercise.

For unionists – and they have shown insignificant aptitude or ability for it – there is a need to sell a pro-Union cause that is across confessional boundaries. They need to recognise and garner enthusiasm for those who are not unionists, but who come to an agreement that Northern Ireland is better within that without.

Republicans and nationalists also have to capture voters the other way. They need to put flesh on the bones of phrases such as “an island of equals”, allay unionist fears of a minority status and explain the potential of unification to the doubters.

The future of Northern Ireland may eventually turn on the saying “It’s the economy, stupid” more so than cultural allegiance. Either which way a poll will fall, we have to acknowledge that constitutional change – whether it is unification, federalism, or DevoMax – will eventually happen.

As with Scotland, we are living in a holding position and there are no certainties in a world of shocks, altering allegiances and economic change…

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