Boring to say so perhaps, but a stable DUP- Sinn Fein partnership matters more than hopes for the opposition or changes in voter behaviour

While we wait on developments, our thoughts might profitably turn to a  the immediate future in which the key signifier is nearly 50:50 but the electorate is becoming somewhat more diverse than that and looking for “delivery.” What sort of cross community politics may be emerging? Which will be the more important: a better DUP/SF relationship in government than before; or the challenge from a developing opposition?  It’s pretty obvious  that the clear initiative lies with the duopoly with its 60%+ majority.  Over emphasis on  the future choice for voters or how the opposition may gel misses the bigger point.

A  convincing rhetoric of mutual accommodation has yet to emerge. Chris Donnelly argues that SF are closer to it than the DUP. Mick however points out the flaws in SF’s’ “ reconciliation “ position.

Will a slightly  more fluid electorate impel the DUP and Sinn Fein to look beyond their core to appeal to diversity if only they can define it? Far fetched as it may seem, could the DUP begin to appeal to conservative minded Catholics as Peter Robinson hoped for and was argued recently in the “Irish Catholic?” Or might the DUP tack to the left to win over more young voters?

Two recent opinion pieces in the Irish Times offer subtly different analyses of the comparative positions of the two leading parties. Both pieces acknowledge that in the battle of the differential turnout, SF has fared less well than the DUP but still well short of decline. Both also agree that hitherto tectonic plates are shifting – a little.

The Irish language champion Pól Ó Muirí scorns the idea that diversity will ever produce Catholics supporting the DUP. However fragmenting around the edges, it is not with liberal opinion but with the fundamental fact of a nationalist majority that unionists will have to deal with in the end.

I know Catholics of all shades and all sorts and all kinds of morality. And the one thing they all have in common is that none of them vote for a real, proper, unionist party such as the DUP or those awfully nice middle-class UUP ones.
That tells you all you really need to know about Ulster unionism.
“I won the election.” No, the DUP collected enough votes within its own supporters to come out in front. For now. There will be another election along soon. And another after that.
What are the chances of the DUP or the UUP finding a Douglas Hyde by then?

( Surely an odd example.. Douglas Hyde was a Protestant academic who was selected by De Valera to become the first president of what was then called Eire. As president of the Gaelic League his ideal was to replace English with Irish . A respected if hardly an representative figure)..

Francis Donnelly  isn’t  so sure. He argues that the sands are shifting for both sides. His perspective is especially interesting as he is a Newry Catholic who joined the British Foreign office, where his last posting was as ambassador to the Holy See. He now heads a Catholic college in England and is a regular contributor to Radio 4’s Thought for the Day.

 

.. although there is a correlation between denomination and voting in Northern Ireland elections, it is not as strong in the Catholic community as among Protestants. In the 2011 census, only a quarter of the population identified as Irish. Furthermore, in a 2015 opinion poll, only 27 per cent of Catholics supported a united Ireland.

No longer can the nationalist parties simply rely on their traditional vote-bank and assume that all will follow regardless of how far they shift their policies away from the views of their electorate.

The DUP, despite its electoral gains, is not immune either. It might see similar pressures on its vote-bank as hitherto rigid identities thaw. Socially liberal Protestants might look elsewhere, but they seem more put off by the prospect of a united Ireland than Catholics are by the continuation of the union.

If the new First Minister and DUP leader, Arlene Foster, continues with the party’s missionary work to attract more Catholic voters, she will need to ask herself if the party is willing to break out of its traditional strongholds and to go where unionism has struggled to travel to date.

Timing will be everything. It took the second World War to bring an end to the toxic religious divisions in German and Dutch political parties with the formation of today’s Christian Democrats. Could Northern Ireland follow such a realignment and see a similar choice between socialism and Christian democracy?

The prospect of an eventual left-right polarity to replace the sectarian divide is probably an illusion. So in any meaningful sense is the prospect of serious cross community transfers. Improving relationships in the community and between parties is likely to depend far more on relationships between the main parties in government than any fundamental change in their character or the behaviour of voters at the polls. If true, this may not be good news for those who have high expectations for what opposition can deliver. We have until 2020 to find out.

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

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