So one of the big set pieces of the weekend was Peter Robinson’s claim was that a majority of Catholics now (ie, right now) would prefer to stay with Britain than take their chances in what (as Ruarai points out in the comments zone) remains a hugely undefined united Ireland.
On the face of it he’s pushing further than Trimble’s famously self defeating claim that 35% of NI Catholics where unionists. Self defeating because such weak attachment did not and still does no translate into votes for Unionist parties.
So Robinson’s use of the numbers is smarter, closer to the truth and also give the use of the word now, decidedly provisional.
He does make any claim that this means that Catholics will start voting DUP in any numbers any time soon. But it does send a signal to the rougher, more fundamentalist wing of his party’s base that many of the working assumptions of the past are not fit for the future.
Catholics may not have the same ingrained respect for the British head of state and her family, but they pay their taxes, which is an increasing chunk of the money that goes to keep all MLAs in work at Stormont and they or their feelings and outlook cannot be taken as enemy territory any more.
So is Robbo actually courting Northern Irish Catholics? Well, maybe, in ones and twos, here and there. But it’s much more likely they are after the middle class Protestant/Other vote.
Acknowledging the importance of the middle class Catholic vote as critical to the defence of the Union is good politics. Particularly when no political party on the nationalist side seems to think it’s a problem that as each election which passes it is this cohort that’s dunking out of politics.
Steven McCaffery probably calls it right when he notes that the next big event in Northern Ireland will be the release of breakdown in the religious breakdown in last year’s census figures. That will likely see a rise in Catholics and others, and a drop in those self designating as Protestant:
…even if the prospect of a narrow Catholic majority emerged, a slight numerical advantage may not deliver a sudden change in Northern Ireland’s constitutional status. Not only do opinion polls suggest nationalists have mixed views on Irish reunification, the objections from a large unionist population would weigh heavy on the British and Irish governments
It is also possible that a larger Catholic community might feel more confident of its ability to shape its own destiny, eroding the demand for constitutional upheaval.
McCaffery also picks up on what is certainly preoccupying the DUP leadership and that’s the census report after this on: ie, 2021 and the 100th anniversary of the founding of the state.
The face of ‘pro union’ sentiment is changing just as rapidly in Northern Ireland as ‘nationalism’ is in the Republic. Robinson knows it, and is clearly in the business of trying to build a sustainable legacy for the future, reliant as much on the passive acceptance of the Catholic middle class as the active defence of the old big ‘P’ Protestant core of his party’s support.
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