The DUP’s Shared Future- Protestants and the (unidentified) pro-Union Catholics need only apply

Mick has already linked a thread to Alex Kane’s article in the Newsletter regarding Peter Robinson’s Conference speech at the weekend. But the focus of that thread is on Kane’s observation regarding the importance of the DUP’s vocabulary in delivering on their ‘catholic’ project.

However, the most significant aspect of the unfolding DUP strategy is what it reveals about the nature of the shared future and society which the main political leadership of unionism is advancing.

Here’s the relevant paragraphs within Kane’s article:

You will have noticed that Robinson didn’t talk about sharing with Sinn Fein. His idea of sharing is within and between that majority of people in Northern Ireland who tend towards the United Kingdom rather than a united Ireland. Yes, of course, he will “respect” the views of those who want Irish unity; in exactly the same way that he wants them to “respect” his views. But he doesn’t want a shared future with them, because he knows (and I have argued it for years) that you cannot build a genuinely shared future between those who believe in a united Ireland and those who want to remain in the United Kingdom.

If there is to be a shared future and a shared society it must begin with those – from whatever religious or social background – who have the same response to the constitutional question. People who are content to remain within the United Kingdom will find it much easier to build common bonds and platforms than people who have different and contradictory responses to the question. So 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).

So, to summarise, the DUP’s shared future involves not seeking an accommodation with Irish nationalists and republicans, just pro-Union catholics.

This is interesting because it effectively amounts to a strategy which sees as the end objective the pitting of catholics against their fellow co-religionists, asking those disposed towards favouring the status quo to stand against Irish nationalists and republicans.

What is fascinating is that the DUP clearly believe this is achievable in spite of the overwhelming force of evidence indicating that this short cut to the realisation of Unionism’s Utopia is not only naive but illustrative of a rejection of the idea of a genuinely shared future and society, founded on mutual respect and equality.

It is a strategy which stands in direct contradiction to the Irish nationalist/ republican one of seeking to articulate an all-Ireland vision which finds a place for unionists as unionists, complete with a British and protestant identity, within that objective.

It is also a strategy which has the benefit of not compelling the leadership of political unionism to begin a process of educating the grassroots about the need for a society based on genuine partnership- indeed, the narrative remains one reflective of a conflict mentality.

This allows us to examine the actions of the DUP Leader in recent times through the prism of this unfolding strategy.

Following the local government elections some months ago, the DUP in Robinson’s heartland of Castlereagh wasted literally no time in moving to form a pan-Unionist alliance to prevent the Alliance Party and/or SDLP from gaining any influence within the overwhelming unionist council. It was classic control politics, utterly at odds with the notion of a shared society based on mutual respect and legitimacy. At the DUP leadership’s behest, this unionist bastion would so remain untainted.

Similarly, the DUP Leader’s response to the UVF’s sectarian assault on the Short Strand in his own constituency in June did not prompt an immediate vocal rejection of the sectarian attacks on the catholic minority in his constituency in such terms. Rather, Robinson sought out a meeting with the UVF leader allegedly responsible for orchestrating the attacks and, whilst keen to portray himself as primarily interested in stopping the violence, made no effort to act in a conciliatory manner towards the minority community in an area where unionism’s electoral and political dominance is a mirror reflection of that existing in Derry city for nationalism.

Furthermore, Robinson’s decision to align himself with the Loyal Orders in their row with the Parades Commission regarding the choice of band music to be played whilst passing St. Matthew’s Catholic Church only a matter of days after loyalists had launched the attack on catholic homes and the church in the Short Strand suggested a contempt for the plight of his constituents of a catholic persuasion.

But the reasoning behind those actions has become much clearer now. The DUP have essentially declared a business as usual approach to their dealings with those catholics whom they believe it will never be possible to persuade round to their way of thinking. Thus there will be no thought given to altering the party’s openly sectarian approach to dealing with educational underachievement (affecting only the working-classes after all), nor should we expect the DUP to begin a process of seeking to convince the broader unionist community of the merits of devising a more tolerant unionist vision.

On another thread, a senior DUP strategist (Fair Deal to Slugger readers) agreed with this sketch of the typical DUP target catholic voter by ‘Carnmoney guy’:

  1. Why is everyone missing the whole point of who the DUP are targeting – it is not nationalists – of whatever hue – it is Catholics.
    Typically – middle class home owners, kids in Catholic grammar / integrated or Protestant grammar like B.R.A.
    Professional / semi professional careers.
    Currently non-voters, Alliance supporters.

As a north Belfast-based teacher, I immediately laughed aloud at the mention of the ‘typically middle-class catholic home owner’ who sends his kid to BRA.

This is because I know many such individuals and their rationale for so doing (which for many essentially is that they fear that the catholic grammars are a bit, ahem, ‘rougher’.) Yet electorally, this demographic has shifted decisively away from the SDLP and towards Sinn Fein in the past decade, buying into the Gerry Kelly strategy pretty clearly in that local area.

But the inference remains clear: the economically prosperous catholics should be less into their nationalism and more enamoured to buy into a unionist vision.

In one sense, it reflects perfectly the old nationalist narrative which suggested hopefully that the protestant businessmen would buy into the all-Ireland economic potential once it was brought to their attention and waste no time in working within a united Ireland once achieved. Following this through to the next logical step, nationalist parties should really just have to camp out at the garden centre to begin the process of persuading the non-voting prods to see through the green-tinted glasses being sold.

The major flaw in that analysis- and the one being offered by the DUP- is that it ignored the significance of the political and cultural identity of ‘the other’ which continues to ensure that voting preferences are limited to the parties whose views are reflective of our own regarding the constitutional issue.

As the DUP are likely to find in the time ahead, history has ensured that there will be no short cuts in this game.