One of the saddest and most frustrating features of politics in Northern Ireland is the extent to which all the bigger parties are stuck in their tribal past.
They often get blamed for showing a lack of leadership in an apparent collective failure to move beyond sectarian politics and to work together to create a better, more prosperous and harmonious Northern Ireland.
Successive opinion polls show an alarming disenchantment with politicians, indeed the entire political process and a strong desire in the population for them to move on and engage more effectively in creating a stronger economy for the benefit of all.
However, as I have written before politics is about winning elections and there has been little evidence in the past that when parties do make brave and bold gestures they get rewarded at the ballot box. When it comes down to voting we tend to vote for the strongest voice in our community, even if the policies they go on to pursue are not what we want.
And the danger here is that politicians then become overly influenced by the margins and extremes: nationalists look over their shoulders at the small but vocal dissident groups, and unionists by the wilder elements of loyalism. The middle ground suffers, progress is not made, the electorate becomes more disengaged and frustrated.
It is easy to blame politicians for this, but it is not entirely fair: they are simply responding to the only real evidence they rely on in formulating policy – voter behaviour.
If we are to change that, to encourage our politicians to take heart and make difficult decisions in the wider interests of society, they need to be told that that is what we want. In order for that to happen other voices need to assert themselves so that we can do so clearly and in numbers.
During the Troubles the business community was largely silent as the economy was ripped apart, lives ruined and communities and workplaces fell under the evil spell of sectarianism and mutual loathing. Recently however business organisations have become much more vocal in asserting the need for a strong, stable economy and condemning the violence, illegal demonstrations and carnage that so blight both the present and our future. There is no doubt that through their efforts the business community has had an impact on politicians.
The Trades Union movement, which represents 215,000 members in Northern Ireland, has throughout the bad times united people from all communities in opposing sectarianism and violence and its peace rallies have been a major contribution to progress, giving ordinary people the opportunity to make their feelings known.
Tomorrow (Friday) the Irish Congress of Trades Unions will be holding a rally in Belfast city centre which calls on all parties to end political paralysis which is holding us back and to work together for the benefit of all.
And very briefly here are just a few of the issues we should be concerned about.
The failure to effectively reform failing schools. Only one third of children on free school meals achieve five GCSEs Grade A*-C – double that ratio get such grades amongst children not eligible for FSM – and less than 30 per cent of those children of the working poor and the jobless achieve two A-Levels. An even smaller proportion of children entitled to free school meals, 18 per cent, go onto third-level education.
The slow progress in building enterprise. Of 62 cities surveyed across the UK, Belfast had the lowest number of business start ups. An important factor here is the sheer size of the public sector in Northern Ireland. So whilst in the prosperous south east of England, the private sector has replaced jobs lost by the public sector, we are still in recession because the scale of the public sector means that cuts affect the private sector. The same medicine doesn’t work.
Political disputes holding up major investment projects. The A5 road project has so far cost £60 million and has not materialised. We all know about the Maze development. Whichever way you stand on that one £18 million of EU funding has now been lost. A similar problem is looming over potential withdrawal of EU funding to the Narrow Water Bridge project and we recently had the spat between the Departments of Finance and Agriculture which Lord Chief Justice Morgan described as “a case about political failure.”
These are all critical issues to our future. And school reform, effective investment to create jobs, and finding an effective way to stimulate enterprise are just a few of the issues that should be centre stage. Instead politicians are finding themselves distracted by the age old political pursuit of whataboutery as they fail to build stable foundations whereby these other issues would be more effectively addressed.
In the meantime whilst other parts of the UK are recovering and we are falling behind exacerbates discontent and deprivation, which in turn feeds conflict.
Some politicians have criticised the unions for organising the rally, presumably they think that the unions have no business engaging with politics which should be left to them. Politics, of course, is the legitimate concern of every citizen and the involvement of both businesses and unions in the process is vital if we are to persuade the parties, that yes, we are ready for change, and that we do expect them to compromise in the wider interests of society.