Cryptozoology: Unionist outreach to Catholics

Cryptozoology according to wikipedia is “the search for animals whose existence has not been proven.” Here in Northern Ireland we have our own version of this: not monsters in Lough Erne (though the pike can get pretty big) but rather the political version. The two most sought after fantasy animals are the fabled Garden Centre Prod and the unicorn that is the Unionist Catholic.

These creatures probably hide in the Craigantlet and Castlereagh Hills in the case of the Garden Centre Prod and the upper reaches of Cave Hill in the case of the Unionist Catholic – along with some smatterings of crypto settlement for both around Lisburn and the Triangle of Coleraine, Portrush and Portstewart.

Anyhow these creatures were going to come out to save David Trimble but forgot to do so. Then, however, a perfect plan was hatched to bring them out: the UCUNF. The UCUNF’s battalions could see the garden centre Prods emerging blinking into the sunlight, finally having been brought out. They could definitely see the unionist Catholic unicorns, their horns glinting as they turned towards the sunrise, preparing on that fateful May morning in 2010 to ride down the ghastly orges of the DUP and purify Northern Ireland. They would make it into a beautiful jewel of a place ready for the consummation of one of their own number striding into Number 10 as a cabinet minister; maybe even one day supplying the resident of the UK’s most famous terraced house. Unfortunately the New Force members then woke up next morning to nothing apart from the sight of Tom Elliott trying to shore up the leaking boat which was their party complete with additional leaks they then made when their deflating political ambitions ripped apart its already creaking timbers as they left.

Unlike the incurably credulous secular romantics of the UCUNF the hard headed disbelieving fundamentalists of the DUP actually went about working out the facts of the fantasy creatures. After toil, not in the Tolkien section of their local library, but rather with the electoral register the DUP established that although many middle class Prods do not vote the predominant non voting dynamic amongst Prods is the working class one. This is a feature predominantly of those east of the Bann but west of the Bann the same occurs albeit to a lesser extent. In light of this the DUP have been making significant efforts to reach out to the working class unionist communities which once supplied much of their (and to a greater extent than is sometimes appreciated the UUP’s) traditional voting strength. This strategy has made some early headway with Sammy Douglas taking Dawn Purvis’s seat and effectively finishing the PUP as a political force. The DUP are, however, unlikely to rest on their laurels and it is most unlikely that that victory alone is the sum total of their ambition for increasing their vote amongst working class P/U/Ls.

As was noted by many at the time of his 2011 conference speech, Peter Robinson also suggested reaching out to the unicorns of the Catholic unionists. He received many brickbats from the usual suspects and many of the complaints had a certain validity. Robinson’s personal and especially the DUP’s collective history being the most obvious problem, along with the repeatedly argued suggestion that the likes of the NI Life and Times survey are simply incorrect in terms of the reality of unionist Catholics or at least Catholics willing to vote for unionist parties. That last is an important distinction unlikely to be lost on the DUP but what parties really want is of course votes.

One issue which few seem to have looked at, however, is leaving aside the numbers of genuine potential voters, who is better placed to gather up whatever this group of voters (no matter how small it is): the liberals of UCUNF or Peter Robinson.

The obvious answer is of course the New Force types. They even disposed a few Catholics about the place. Certainly the assorted civic unionist prods seemed very sophisticated, liberal, urbane, cosmopolitan, non sectarian and lots of other “good things” which would surely have attracted those unicorns: except of course they did not. Against them the DUP’s unicorns attractants seem much less fantasy animal friendly. Peter Robinson seems the most interested in cryptozoology but he has some baggage including The Third Force and the invasion of Clontribet. Most other DUP types (to continue the analogy) seem more likely to devour than attract unicorns. That might, however, be a mistake (as well as a slur on the DUP).

The reality is that many of the UCUNF types at least appeared more fond of gaining political office than anything else; to many they looked as if they had some sort of bizarre view that they were somehow “entitled” to office and that they felt themselves desperately clever, urbane, cosmopolitan etc. Some undoubtedly were fairly clever, urbane etc. but then lots of ogre like non civic unionists (and lots of nationalists and republicans and lots of others) are also clever and sophisticated. There was at times a whiff of smug superiority which even if unfair clung to the UCUNF’s civic unionist types.

In addition sometimes the UCUNFers seemed very “West Home Counties English” to steal the “West Brit” concept from republicans. The UUP has been there before of course with Steven King (admittedly from Yorkshire originally) as its terribly clever, urbane, cultured (a genuinely nice guy) spin doctor: author of the “Decent People Vote Unionist” – the shortest suicide note in British political history. We have here in Northern Ireland a surprising degree of social egalitarianism in society along with a certain mistrust of our “elders and betters” almost bordering on inverted snobbery at times often most marked amongst the middle classes and (whisper it) nouveaux slightly rich. That attitude is just as prevalent amongst Catholics as Protestants (socially we are remarkably similar) and may have helped turn off any possible unicorns just as firmly as it did the assorted fantasy and non fantasy unionist prods.

The reality is that successful political machines rarely travel well: the Tories have not in recent years done well outside England (especially southern England) and their recent relative revival in Wales (and to an extent in Scotland) has been about minimising the feeling of being awash with southern English posh boy David Cameron clones. At times some UCUNF members seemed to want to be a bit too wannabe Home Counties for Northern Ireland.

In that context the DUP’s appeal to Catholic Unionists is different and just might be greater. The DUP makes no secret of its unionism: neither political nor cultural. This was a mistake the UCUNF made: Catholics knew full well they were a unionist party – they had run the country for the fifty years and pretending to be unionist lite is not really credible especially when there is already Alliance which whatever its protestations is seen by almost all as unionist-lite. In terms of the “outreach” to Catholics, although DUP members have attended GAA matches there has been less of the song and dance which accompanied such revelations by UCUNF members. At times this sort of activity may have seemed a little patronising as well as too overtly a vote fishing exercise from UCUNF.

Even one of the criticisms levelled at the DUP by UCUNF might be somewhat attractive to some of the unicorns. The UCUNF often tried to paint the DUP as Ulster Nationalist and only conditionally unionist. The latter part of that is almost certainly unfair but the former may have a little validity. The DUP are very Northern Ireland in character and very clearly are not trying to ape or mirror any mainland GB political party. This may be more attractive to potential unionist voting Catholics. Many people of both sides here identify themselves primarily as Northern Irish (NI Life and Times again with all the attendant qualifications) and as such a party which is overtly and unashamedly Northern Ireland focused in its outlook may be more attractive than a mainland Tory party clone or offshoot. Unionist Catholics may support the union but not feel very English and the DUP might offer unionism without any of the wannabe Englishness some in the UCUNF seemed to want to imply.

The DUP do of course have major problems in attracting the unicorns. Thus far only Peter Robinson himself has made much running on this issue. It would require other members to talk the talk and the party to decide exactly what walking the walk of attracting Catholic Unionists would involve. This might be very difficult: significant policy change could annoy some hard liners. It might also be far too little to attract Catholic votes and it might simultaneously look like tokenism or appear crass and condescending. Avoiding those pitfalls sounds difficult, could prove nigh on impossible and might yield very few gains even if it was all achieved.

Much of the appeal Robinson seems to be outlining is, however, the same narrative he used to devastating effect in the 2010 and especially the 2011 elections. It is that the DUP are moving Northern Ireland forwards, making the big decisions even when they are difficult, improving or maintaining quality of life in the teeth of the financial crises which have faced the UK and indeed the world. This narrative notes and respects the past but is not bound to it. It has allowed the DUP to accrue to itself most of the credit for devolution’s successes and blame others for most of devolution’s failures. It is a narrative I and many others have attacked both in its claims and its outworkings but it has proved persuasive to very large numbers of unionist voters. There is no fundamental reason why that same narrative might not prove attractive to Catholics who are supportive of, or benignly indifferent to, the union. The fundamental issues facing the two communities are of course completely identical and the DUP’s narrative seems, whatever its failings, more coherent on a day to day level than those of the other major parties.

It is an enormous hill Peter Robinson has set himself to climb. Every unionist leader who has tried it before has failed: often spectacularly. The opposite trick of attracting any significant numbers of pro nationalist Protestants has proven even less successful and seems to have been largely abandoned by political nationalism. The two communities here may be very similar but politically the cross over has been extremely scant whatever some might like to believe. That said although Peter Robinson might seem less well equipped a cryptozoologist than UCUNF’s civic unionists he has a number of things on his side. Furthermore there is a long list of people in NI politics who have underestimated Robinson to their cost. After all Stanley (of David Livingstone fame) did find the Okapi though it was years before his claims were substantiated.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.