Sectarianism is alive and well in Northern Ireland and is enthusiastically promoted by small groups on the fringes of politics and then, sometimes unwittingly, sometimes deliberately fed and watered by those in the mainstream.
But anyone who thinks that it carries any answers to the problems that we face is deluded, sadly and wildly deluded. The division and mutual loathing it fosters breeds conflict and prevents us from moving forward to create a fairer and more prosperous Northern Ireland in which all citizens can take a sense of pride.
It has been both significant and encouraging to see both Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness make positive statements about a shared society and there is no reason whatsoever not to take what they say at face value and to hope this will mark a shift which will allow us to make some progress after what has been a dreadful 12 months.
But if we are to move politics on, that takes more than politicians. Naturally politicians want to be re-elected and so long as voters vote purely on sectarian lines, then sectarian politics is inevitable, and you can’t solely blame politicians for that. They are trapped by it, trapped by the very voters who say in polls that they want to move beyond it.
At the last Assembly elections I was involved in an experiment where we excluded the “national” question and asked voters to choose between a range of policies on education, the economy, the environment etc without telling them which party favoured which.
When they were shown the result many participants were shocked to see that they were most aligned with a party across the sectarian divide to which they had no affection.
So yes, in policy terms, there were Catholics who favoured the DUP, and Protestants who liked Sinn Fein’s ideas. Bizarrely the party that did best in the poll, the Ulster Unionists, went on to perform worst in the subsequent election!
So when we get to the next election it is important that the debate is broadened out from a narrow sectarian focus.
Northern Ireland’s constitutional status is secure. So what are the parties going to do about all those things that actually matter most to people as they struggle through recession: job creation; inward investment; housing, education, health, Welfare Reform the environment.
Where do individual politicians stand on important local constituency issues? (as a Strangford resident candidates who want to close down Exploris need not ask for my vote).
Key to those debates will be individual interest groups that will challenge politicians on policies. Older people will want to ensure that whoever they vote for will stand up for them and ensure their voice is heard, the same for people with disabilities, mental health issues etc, and it is the same for those who care deeply for the environment or workers’ rights or business interests or whatever.
Leadership for these issues will come from voluntary sector organisations who work with and campaign on behalf of a wide range of interest groups here.
They will analyse party policy and campaign, for example, that older peoples’ interests are met in manifestos and express disappointment if they are not.
This broadening of the debate is critical to transforming politics in Northern Ireland: and the next really big test will be the General Election which will take place in 2015.
It is therefore a scandal that the Coalition government at Westminster is forcing through a piece of legislation which will make that process impossible here.
The new lobbying bill will restrict expenditure on campaigning by interest groups on policy issues to £11,000 in the year before an election. This will include salaries and overheads. Spend more and you’ve committed a criminal offence.
That means that some organisations will not take the risk and will disengage, the rest, in order to be compliant, will at best be half-hearted in joining the debate.
It’s hard to work out why this piece of legislation is being forced through parliament. Most commentators believe that the Conservatives want to silence the unions and the Liberal Democrats, who are behind the Bill are worried about what the National Union of Students might do and say about Nick Clegg’s U-turn on university fees.
Both appear to be oblivious to the fact that an unintended consequence will be to make it much, much harder for Northern Ireland to move on and shift its own debate away from sectarianism and onto those issues that really matter to all of us.
Politicians in Northern Ireland are aware of this – there has been huge support from our Westminster representatives to the fight against the Bill.
They know that unless we can have full, open and rigorous debates about the issues that really matter to people here we will be forever locked in sectarianism.