Right – let’s nail the first big lie (well the first one I’ve noticed) in this election campaign. Let’s nail it nice and tight and permanent to the barn wall and then let’s throw buckets of cow-dung at it. The lie is that electoral pacts = sectarian head-counting.
That was the excuse – or one of two excuses – Maggie Ritchie used to reject Gerry Adams’s suggestion of an agreed nationalist/republican candidate in Fermanash/South Tyrone and in South Belfast. Sinn Féin, like the SDLP, had agreed that the unionist agreed-candidate pact in Fermanagh/South Tyrone was an example of sectarian head-counting, so clearly Maggie and the SDLP couldn’t stoop to such depths in response. And when I was on BBC Radio Ulster’s ‘Good Morning Ulster’ yesterday, Tom Kelly used the same line: the Orange Order was involved in the F/ST pact, so it was intruding religion into politics, ergo a sectarian head-count.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. Whether you’re SDLP or Sinn Féin or anyone else. Number one, forming a political alliance may make your political opponents mad as hell but it’s still not sectarian politics. What divides people in this statelet is the constitutional question – should we break the link with Britain or maintain it? The fact that the overwhelming number of Catholics believe we should and the overwhelming number of Protestants believe we shouldn’t doesn’t make it sectarian. Being for or against the union with Britain is not a theological position. We’re used to idiot journalists from Britain characterizing the Troubles here as a war between two religions, but people who live here should know better.
The second lie, linked to the first, is that Sinn Féin’s policy of abstentionism means poorer areas in the North are not properly catered for – another of Maggie R’s claims. The unspoken implication, of course is that attendance at Westminister will mean the interests of your area here are attended to. Oh really? One can only scratch the skull and wonder what happened to Derry. For the past ten years the former leader of the SDLP has been representing it, swearing the oath and taking his seat , and…Well, take a walk through Derry city any day. Amble down Shipquay Street, for example, in the heart of that city. The grass isn’t growing out of every building and not every shop is boarded up, but there’s an air of pessimism and neglect about the place. Booming Derry ain’t. If sitting in the House of Commons made a difference, shouldn’t it have shown by now?
It’s debatable what difference Sinn Féin abstention makes (they’d say you don’t underscore Irish nationalism by swearing loyalty to the Queen of England) but there can be little debate about the impact of attendance by MPs from the North. Except, of course, that it gives English MPs someone to patronize.