If If Unionists are serious about Catholic voters they must reflect Catholic values…

In today’s Irish News, Brian Feeney has an interesting line on any future border referendum (re the power of framing the question, ala the SNP), more or less riffing off Peter Robinson’s reference in an article for the Times (of London) that he could be unionism’s last first minister.

For all the excitement it caused, Robinson’s words seem to me to have had one purpose over all others: further concentration on the message that his party must retain that office.

However, Feeney cites the dumping of Lester Maddox (a vocal supporter of the segregationist independent candidate George Wallace in the 1968 Presidential election) by the Democrat party in Georgia in 1971, as a turning point for Georgia from which it has never looked back.

And it was in a way, although it should be noted that the ‘revolution’ took place within the Democrat party.

In fact that party until recently maintained an enviable dominance at state level; the real change has been that significant number of the party’s voters have voted for Republican candidates in the majority of Presidential elections since Maddox’s departure.

If Georgia is to be the model, then Northern Ireland’s revolution may go no further than widespread acceptance that old hegemonies are melting (albeit at a glacial pace), and reform, however reluctantly accepted, is here to stay.

Henry McDonald provides a less counter intuitive pitch for the lead unionist party leader, if he is at all serious about attracting Catholic votes:

Regardless of the rights and wrongs of academic selection, here is one area where the DUP and Robinson could win friends and influence on the other side of the traditional divide. If Robinson was serious about making the DUP more attractive, he and his spokespersons could express their admiration for the Catholic grammar sector as continuing centres of educational excellence.

The DUP chief has, in recent years, had some success in secularising the party. And, given the personal scandals that beset not only his family of late and those of some of his party colleagues, Robinson must realise that the days of the DUP as Ulster’s moral police force are long over.

People, in general, want to be good, as George Orwell noted, but not too good. And Catholic people in Northern Ireland don’t want to be told that their faith is blind and that they are living in darkness. They want – and deserve – respect for their belief system, rather than patronising insults.

Indeed. At the time of our research for a study of the future of unionism, I more than once heard it said that the values of a rural Orangeman and those of a rural member of the GAA were not that far apart. Even if we assume that that were true, there is insufficient evidence to suggest that the mere sharing of those underlying values currently affects the way people vote.

Not least because they are rarely publicly expressed in those terms.

So, whilst Mr Robinson’s focus on winning the office of First Minister will no doubt help frame the next electoral question in precisely the way he wants in the minds of Protestant voters, it’s likely to have precisely the opposite effect on Catholic ones.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty