Spare us a new long game of political numbers

More clearly than before as Mick observes, it is Peter Robinson’s medium term strategy and perhaps his personal legacy to enlist the support of enough Catholics to preserve the Union.  But despite the superficial confidence in Peter’s leader’s speech it is loaded with insecurity.  He has been forced to recognise the likelihood of an eventual Catholic majority and with it a possible loss of unionist control.  While candour in politics is always a good thing, it is unfortunate  that he has chosen to move local politics beyond the immediate post-agreement era by taking the gamble of promoting the numbers game in the political agenda. Or does this do him a disservice and that he intends instead to try to move politics in a more constructive and dynamic  direction?

While there is something to be said for Peter’s optimism there is also an element of whistling in the wind.  Sinn Fein may now be less confident that a United Ireland is inevitable. But if there is a clear Catholic  voting majority by 2035 or thereabouts, the question becomes Why the Union rather than the present Why Not?

For those who are keen on posing it, the question must be whether either the DUP or Sinn Fein is the right party to deliver its own most cherished ambitions. Realising that obvious fact, each has adopted a smiling strategy towards the other’s national culture and indulged in the rhetoric of a shared future, the other big idea,  in order to attract a margin from the growing ranks of the nationally uncommitted.

But let’s be honest, integration is no magic bullet.  Building confidence in social engineering such as mixed housing requires  time, tact and money. Planning compulsion is out of the question. The middle class cannot impose housing integration on the working class for their own good. There is a great deal of work to do to turn integration into a set of viable policies.  Integration in education is perhaps a better medium term bet. The results of savings in the marginal costs of separate development are fairly clear and integration has some appeal to minority Protestants and middle class Catholics. As part of a niceness strategy it may have some political attractions but with an uncertain outcome. The other point in its favour is that it offers relief from the numbers game and gives the Assembly something to do.

But for the DUP and Sinn Fein, is integration in whatever form anything more than a gambit in the niceness strategy to impress the growing ranks of the politically uncommitted? We shall find out shortly – perhaps – but hopes are not high for a programme of substance. If integration’s appeal was to be rooted in an agreed shared future with Sinn Fein and the other parties it would surely have been unveiled with a flourish before or at their party conferences and not later, as now foreshadowed.

Don’t sigh too deeply at the question: is there an opportunity here for the Alliance party that has got out from under the suffocations of the big two in the subject? They are also positioning themselves sensibly on the identity issue of restricting the Union Jack to designated days above the City Hall.  Even over  the smiling strategy the DUP show uncertainties as they snarl accusations of bad faith at each other. Here,  it is the insecurity that’s shared.  The signs are not great, but might voters get fed up with  that nonsense  if they saw a viable alternative,with the present Alliance party as a catalyst?

Now that Peter has let the cat out of the bag, we must be spared decades of obsession with  the demographics.  For real change and genuine accommodation, pressure must come again from the two governments, the subject of another post. It was the governments, remember, not the parties that forced the pace from 1997 to 2006. They may have to do so again – and on more than whether there should be a Stormont opposition.


Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London