Alex Kane has some useful thoughts on the DUP, post Robinson’s speech. In particular, he notes a key difference in the trajectories of the two big parties in Northern Ireland, themselves and Sinn Fein: the degree to which each has invested in further penetration of the middle class vote:
Robinson knows that the DUP’s survival requires movement beyond the ‘happy-clappy’ evangelicalism of Protestant/unionist fundamentalism and onto territory which is reasonably comfortable for the liberal, secular wing of unionism too.
For a long time the DUP was a sect outside the big tent: today, though, the DUP has become the big tent. So big, in fact, that he wants it to accommodate pro-Union Roman Catholics as well as ship-jumpers from the UUP and non-voters who might otherwise be tempted by the appearance of some new centre-right political vehicle.
Perception and selling matter in politics. What Peter Robinson is selling, is the DUP at the helm of a confident, peaceful, stable Northern Ireland. The perception he offers is that success is ultimately dependent upon a confident, growing DUP. He sells the prospect of increasing numbers of Roman Catholics buying into this perception. He sells the prospect of a shared future and sharing society being the natural consequence of his long term strategy, with the unnamed believers in a united Ireland being dismissed as a “minority within a minority”.
What Robinson was really saying to the DUP faithful and to the wider pro-Union audience, was that there was no threat to the Union and that Sinn Fein were passengers rather than partners. In other words, it is pro-Union hands which are on the wheel and determining the direction. It’s one of those very clever dog-whistle messages which combine both strength and subtlety.
Robinson, starting from the premise that there is a comfortable majority for the Union (including a significant number of Roman Catholics) wants to prepare the shared future ground by encouraging the DUP and others to become “persuaders” for the Union (something else I have argued for years).
What all of this adds up to is a move beyond the mantras of “No Surrender” and “Never, Never, Never”. It’s a bold move and it’s also a courageous move. There will be elements within the DUP, within the broader unionist family and within Orangeism who will not be happy. There will be voices cautioning him that the so-called pro-Union Roman Catholics have never voted for a ‘unionist’ party, let alone Alliance, Conservative or UCUNF. They will argue that he risks his own voter base and will also be obliged to make all sorts of concessions in the pursuit of a vote that may not even exist. And, let’s face it; those voters didn’t exactly come to David Trimble’s rescue, did they?
But as he notes there is the tetchy little problem of sincerity (or lack thereof):
The unanswered question is whether or not Robinson believes in all of this himself. Recently he talked about the need for a shared future and then the following day threatened an election if pro-British Prison Service emblems were removed. On Saturday he was back to the shared future language, albeit mingled with another defence of pro-British symbols in what he described as “British Ulster”.
It’s his use of language and the use of it by those around him (and someone should tell Sammy Wilson that his routine is embarrassing rather than funny) which could make or break his strategy. He must never allow it to be interpreted as a victory for the DUP, or even a victory for small ‘u’ unionism.
Peter Robinson speaks for the majority of unionists, but not yet for the entire pro-Union majority. He is absolutely right, though, about the need for unionists themselves to become “persuaders” for the Union. That is now his biggest challenge and (though this may surprise him) I really do wish him well. He has the opportunity and the moment: he must not let them slip through his hands.
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