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

  • chrisjones2

    The DUP knows that SF is well cemented into Stormont and its dance of slow death with the DUP. The huge flow of salaries and expenses from Westminster and Northern Ireland assure that. Were SF to revert to war the US funds and all of this would dry up and they would soon be on their uppers

  • Granni Trixie


    I so agree – the current chaos to get the Exeuctive up and running is pain with a bigger purpose than a focus on opposition suggests. I have slso often considered that conservative Catholics have more in common with the likes of the DUP on moral issues than they are prepared to acknowledge to themselves.

    Abortion in particular is likely to bring about realignment given that (for the first time I think) adopting the 67 ACT is on the political agenda. Infact a rejigging beyond orange and green is increasingly likely when parties have to respond with policies in respect of other moral issues eg end of life and (gasp) “man babies” – was reading in New Statesman that it’s now possible for a man to create a baby – no women needed!

    Interesting times.

  • Gopher

    The fundamentals are this SF and the DUP are running at capacity with regards the budget so they have absolutely nothing to offer bar administering what is already there. They tick along at that which just seems to be the plan without major crisis they will poll around the same next election.

    The only way an opposition can touch them is arguing against duplication and localisation to free up the budget for health and education and infrastructure. The opposition has to demonstrate the conservative nature of DUP//SF policy is holding things back. This off course will take a great deal of co operation between Alliance, SDLP and UUP. For the UUP and SDLP this will involve getting out of the trenches and casting off useless emotive trappings but if your only returning one in East and West Belfast it’s a no brainer

  • Granni Trixie

    How can you say differences between parties are mere “emotive trappings”? Policies,attitudes, political analyses which impacts on strategies. Not to mention core principles. Mutual cooperation is called being professional but more than that I can’t see happening any time soon.

    Also, should they cooperate to show up abuse of POCS now that would be a game changer if they could do it. Would unlock decision making.

  • ted hagan

    Too much is being read into the slump in support for the SDLP and SF, which was due to apathy. The idea that Catholics would look to the DUP as their guiding light, in a society that is as divided as ever, is sheer nonsense. Enough.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    For the DUP to win some of the “Catholic vote”, particularly the conservative variety they will need to prove themselves attractive on more than issues of personal conscience/personal morality/anti libertarianism. They will also need to win trust and show themselves as much less rigid and accommodating on issues of Irish identity e.g. GAA and Irish language et al. In addition, less unbendingly Calvinist and looser on the jingoist pastiche of Britishness that only reveals that they know what they don’t like better than they know what they would like. They’ll also need to show themselves as a party of law and order (equal for everyone) when it comes to marching season trouble and Twaddell and other futile manifestations of discontent. In short, equitable and less partisan. Whether their enforced partnership with SF (both ourselves alone) will precipitate this will be a test of Arlene’s leadership. Her statement on being low Anglican like the Queen (wha?) might be an indicator that she hopes to be a unifier instead of a polariser. However, she needs to have the desire to simultaneously appease the ‘not an inch not a mile’ lot and reassure her potential voters that the water’s not just lovely and warm but that it has been replaced entirely and a new filtration system has been installed. Not an easy task and it could lose her votes more easily than gain her new ones.
    As for SF, their predicament is largely summarised by:- no longer a movement but just another political party except, for now, with responsibility and unavoidable accountability. This puts them on a backfoot, unless they can completely re-invent themselves which is not beyond them. Novertheless, they can’t re-invent themselves into a new movement that is immune to reproach.
    I doubt that the Dutch/German model of unifying Papists and Lutherans into one political unit could gain much traction here. For one, our distasteful conflict is too long past; secondly, we have no Marshall Plan; thirdly, we don’t have the fear of communism or any other leviathan and fourthly Lutheranism is a very different concept to 17thC political anglicanism AND to Knoxian Calvinism in that it eschews alienation and extremism.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Interesting yes but: “The whole map of Europe has been changed … but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again.”
    That’s wee Norn Iron’s ‘plus ça change, c’est plus la même chose’ particularly if it’s not our thing.

  • Gopher

    Why should the UUP give a monkies over an orange parade when they returned twice as many candidates in North Down than East Belfast and in North Belfast they returned none? Should they not state they will fully support the parades commission in any opposition coalition? Where exactly are they going to lose votes? That is an example of a mere emotive issue. Likewise SDLP support for that teaching certificate is another example of a useless emotive issue that has no function in a serious opposition.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Pragmatism in Gov’t and in opposition will be the order of the day and I think that’s what Granni is saying as are you. While all 5 parties were in Gov’t together they could afford the luxury of blowing the dog whistle. Now policy and efficient models of delivery will be what they’re judged on.

  • tmitch57

    American political journalists have long noted that attempts at inclusiveness in the Republican Party are not really targeted at minority voters but rather at attracting more middle-class voters who sympathize with Republicans on economic issues but are turned off by overt racism. I imagine that in Northern Ireland a similar move on the part of the DUP and Sinn Fein of eliminating overt sectarian appeals would be aimed not so much at attracting voters across the sectarian divide as at targeting moderate middle-class voters within the party’s ethnic community: UUP, Alliance and SDLP voters. Such an approach would hopefully also improve interparty relations within the ruling duopoly.

  • Gopher

    I’m all for pragmatism

  • Ernekid

    Is the ‘conservative Catholic’ vote that substantial? In polling most of those from a Catholic background are quite relaxed about issues such as contraception and Same sex marriage. Most are just culturally catholic and couldn’t really give a tinkers cuss about what the pope has to say. They just show up to Mass at Christmas and want to have a day out with the extended family at their kids baptism/communion/wedding. The real hardcore Catholics are the older generation and I doubt they’ll ever vote unionist as they remember what happened when the Unionists were in government by themselves

  • Skibo

    Fortunately/unfortunately the diaspora of hard core Catholics are on the demise. A simple example is the attendance figures at Mass on Sunday or better still, try finding a full church for a mid-week mass.

  • Skibo

    The DUP also need to be aware that SF cooperation should net be taken for granted. If this marriage ends up in “staying together for the kids” then neither will receive a positive response from the electorate.
    It has to be seen to be working and there has to be results.
    Perhaps a DUP Education minister will have more effect in closing down primary schools where there are 50,000 empty primary school desks or the 12000 empty secondary school desks.
    I hear principals say they only control 59% of their budget and want more control of the rest but it is in pooling the rest of the resources that we have been able to direct such resources to areas of most need.
    I heard the principal of St Marys grammar Magherafelt quote those percentages on the politics programme on Sunday but she didn’t report that her school is presently benefiting from a £2.7m extension.

  • chrisjones2


    Hedging ones bets? Very Slugger!

  • chrisjones2

    I agree …but doubt your proposals on education except in areas where it wont impact on DUP Votes or where they can close 2 of themuns schools for every one of oursuns

    Same goes for hospitals – we dont close em even if it means we kill more patients in a dysfunctional NHS

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Exactly, I think Arlene knows she’d be chasing unicorns and I can’t really see her increasing her vote share too remarkably.

  • Granni Trixie

    This is mentally hedging ones bets: I once did “the nine first Fridays” which involved going to Clonard for mass and communion and saying particular prayers on first Friday of nine consequative months. It guaranteed you would get into heaven. Although I no longer “practice” religion at the back of my mind I half believe In this safety net. I also think my thinking exemplifies the impact of religious practices at a formative stage. So I am perceived a Cathoic and feel some of the impact of being culturally brought up a Catholic….but know im not quite a Catholic.

  • jporter

    Something had to change. Simply continuing to cross our fingers and hope, for some reason (through the force of typing, perhaps?), that the assembly will start governing better, is a non-starter.
    Whether opposition works, we’ll see….at least the reality of SF/DUP as government partners is now beyond the denial of the parties and their voters, as opposed to the illusion of ‘opposition within government’ (or ussuns vs themmuns).
    Pressures are now in the right direction – pushing DUP/SF (and other parties) out of their comfort zones – towards ‘normal’ governance, even if it doesn’t deliver.
    The discomfort can only force the DUP/SF into more co-operation – the challenge of an opposition should drive a better DUP/SF relationship – it is not a matter of ‘which will be the more important’.

  • Dominic Hendron

    Maybe we need more grown up Catholics.

  • Robert ian Wiliams

    Orthodox Catholics who value the teaching of our Church may be a minority..they may not vote Unionist (and some have always done so)..but they will never vote for a party like Sinn Fein..especially as it becomes pro abortion and pro lgbt. And the same goes for Eastwood in the SDLP , he comes across as being pro life as Nicola Sturgeon is an expedient monarchist.

  • Robert ian Wiliams

    For that indulgence, you would have had to have no attachment to sin when you made your communions. So I wouldn’t rest on your laurels.

  • Robert ian Wiliams

    But I can see Sinn Fein? SDLP continuing too decline ..particularly if they don’t stand up for the Catholic schools.

  • Zig70

    Seems odd that we have umpteen pieces on Catholics voting unionist and I’m not sure I know of any talking about Protestants voting nationalist, which has more of a history. Vote for the DUP, flag eating, anti Catholic party, founded by a man that shouted AntiChrist at the Pope? The fact that it is even suggested without expecting some repentance from the DUP is ridiculous. Wasn’t the last poll 0% of Catholic respondents said they would vote DUP? Sure the DUP would like Catholics to vote for them, heck they’d even take Muslim votes. They sure as hell haven’t done anything serious to attract them apart from croppies lie down and vote for us.

  • Granni Trixie

    I can readily understand anti abortion views but why be anti gay people or gayness? What would Jesus think of that?

    And I don’t see why they tend to be talked about as similar moral issues.

  • aquifer

    Sounds like a plea for the good old days. They were lamentable. What has the electorate got to thank SFDUP for? Electoral kidnapped hostage syndrome? Thankfully partys are easier to get rid of than teenage tattoos.

  • Kevin Breslin

    None of these three things are actually exclusive to one another.

  • Gopher

    Because they are a personal choice

  • Skibo

    Well, Chris now we are going to see what this government is actually made of. They will have five years if they can keep an even keel. That should be time to get all the difficult decisions made over the first two and then give themselves three years to show how things can progress.
    the Education Dept. has to have a long hard look at the spread of desks along with future rates of births and resolve the massive figures of empty desks. Money is leaching out on this alone.
    The Health Dept. should follow up on the previous report by Sir Liam Donaldson and accept the findings by the expert body headed up by Rafael Bengola. Difficult decisions need to be made.
    Transport needs to look at the possibility of a train link to both the Maze and the International Airport.
    The motorway network has to progress in the west. Business start-ups are being crucified with transport costs and it looks so unprofessional taking foreign business men into the west on a B class network of roads.

  • Skibo

    I don’t think it is hedging my bets. I see alot of good in the Church, in all churches actually where they give Christian morals to live by. My problem is when they consider it their duty to ensure everyone lives by their morals.
    A free society should allow freedom to decide within the law. The issue we have in NI is the fundamental Christians are making/ upholding the law for everyone.
    Laws should be made to protect the rights of the citizen, not just protect the rights of Christian society.

  • Gingray

    I did like this from Dara Ó Briain
    “I’m staunchly atheist, I simply don’t believe in God. But I’m still Catholic, of course. Catholicism has a much broader reach than just the religion. I’m technically Catholic, it’s the box you have to tick on the census form: ‘Don’t believe in God, but I do still hate Rangers.’”

    Other than the Rangers bit, that fits my own views.

  • Gingray

    The DUP party membership are largely Free Presbyterians. The DUP MLAs and MPs are largely members of the Orange Order and forbidden to attend a Catholic service as ultimately Catholics are non Christian.

    So while there is agreement on social issues, ultimately there remains a superior than tho attitude towards the Catholic religion from the DUP.

    The same guys I know who regularly attend mass and are true believers are accutely aware of the perception of their faith from within the DUP.

  • Tochais Siorai

    Ah well, at least you’re going to heaven……

  • Tochais Siorai

    You need to get working on the Rangers bit……..

  • Gingray

    I’m a Hibs fan, so I get to dislike both old firm teams

  • Croiteir

    Of course it does. We have to maintain a pretence of a normal political settlement even though we know it is anything but.