Peter Robinson will not win over nationalists with gloating like this

I know we’ve taken this subject apart before but blame Peter not me for returning to it. His speech to a home crowd welcoming a softening of political attitudes illustrates perfectly what’s defective in his approach.  He is guilty of reducing what could be a tentative change in political attitudes requiring respect and real understanding of difference  to the tired old zero sum game between unionism and nationalism. This risks hardening attitudes up all over again. And by failing  at least to balance the gloating  with  an account of the reasons for the DUP’s own softening towards the nationalist agenda he gifts a point to Jim Allister and patronises his own audience.

Nationalism is in crisis as more Catholics define themselves as Northern Irish, Peter Robinson has claimed.

No Peter, nationalism is not in crisis (I think you really mean Sinn Fein) and you know it. Like you SF overstates tiresomely. Are you seriously claiming that all nationalist accommodations are made out of weakness rather than strength? Do you seriously wish to test that proposition out?

There is new political space developing in Northern Ireland…. It is the DUP’s aim that unionism will own it and lead it.

No Peter, the DUP won’t own it.  Although we know you don’t really mean it and  realise the “space” has changed fundamentally, you sound like Craig in 1921.  Or are you starting up a New DUP? Not like this

The people in this space do not fit the stereotypes.

Too right, Peter, so why pretend they’re following a DUP line?

Their (SF) grand plan by their grand strategist (Gerry) Adams has failed.

Maybe.. time will tell.. Certainly the SF “plan” is as full of posturing as anything from you. But do you seriously think your little bits of rhetoric will fare any better?

“To avoid the hard truths of home he ( Adams) wanders the world trying to convince the ignorant and the gullible  that it’ll ( a United Ireland) happen any day now.

Isn’t your pretence that the Union is secure just as phoney?

We are all used to politicians playing their tired old games with a future that no party can control, desperately trying to face both ways at once and so far lacking enough authenticity. The constitutional future is in the hands of more than them thank goodness. The two governments first and finally the people will decide if it ever comes to the point of decision. But I mustn’t exaggerate either. There may be a new political space and unless new games are devised that appeal to the people, the old parties with too many of their old ways will continue to fill it. At the very least, Peter, the time is overdue for more real leadership which points out honestly what will work better in the interests  of your own supporters,  rather than what you think they want to hear. They just might surprise you.

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

  • All fairly predictable stuff from Robinson and possibly an indicator he has had a glimpse of the census – head off the rise in number of “Catholics” by emphasising the numbers identifying as “Northern Irish”. Sorry Pete, you’ll probably find most of the SDLP vote would define themselves as Northern Irish and a even a part of the SF vote.

  • ayeYerMa

    More nonsense from commentators completely misrepresenting what is being said.

    Peter Robinson does NOT want to win over dyed-in-the-wool NATIONALISTS. Irish Nationalism is the antithesis to a peaceful and stable Northern Ireland. As he has said repeatedy, the constitutional issue is a decision, not a religion.

    This simply seems to me that too many commentators have been brainwashed by the flawed and illogical vocuabulary used by “community designation” in the Assembly to assume that the main division here is on the constitutional question, when in fact this is not the case.

  • Mick Fealty

    I think there’s a danger that we all buy in to the idea that Peter is trying to convert nationalists: a task he would not have a hope in hell of achieving, any more than converting unionists would work for nationalists.

    What he’s after is Catholics (those who are most decidedly not – or are no longer – nationalists) who are prepared to redefine their national and cultural identity within the context of an open ended peace.

    I do agree with your last point. Though it is hugely circumscribed by the very real lack of confidence currently evident within northern political nationalism.

    Which itself is a point obscured somewhat by the very note of triumphalism that you object to in the first place.

  • Brian Walker

    Mick and friends,

    It’s all too understandable that people reply to a familiar case even if it’s not the one being made. Over interpretation by commentators is as old as the zero sum game itself and may be welcome relief to bring a bit of variety into the game.

    I really do understand that Peter’s appeal to Catholics is to accept the Union, not vote for the DUP. Nothing I’ve written suggests otherwise. That means accepting the constitutional status quo and not going to the trouble of voting to change it, a conveniently passive position from the unionist viewpoint. SF have a arguably a trickier appeal to make as their analysis as distinct from their vision is not shared by the other supposed beneficiaries , the majority on the island.

    The sensible political pro-union strategy should be based on (1) good government and (2) what Peter doesn’t wish to admit to too much, which is to sell those considerable parts of the nationalist agenda to unionists which are either of common benefit or an incontestable human right.

    Few would argue that polticians have risen to the challenge yet. They tend to live on ageing triumphs like the GFA or St Andrew’s which owed much to external pressure rather than build momentum by themselves.

    They keep mistaking tactical positioning for strategic insight. It’s a bit sad when you see them hugging themselves with glee at their own cleverness when they score a wee point against the other side.

    I’m doing here what may be unusual after a lifetime of this, which is taking what someone said at face value and going through the points. It’s too complicated for my poor mind to explain triumphalism as insecurity although it may be true.

    From my remoteness, Mick, I hadn’t noticed any particular loss of nationalist self confidence, not that I would really know, just a sense all round that the old nostrums aren’t creating much momentum any more. This is not surprising as it shows the pressures of power sharing are working up to a point, even though they’re still too fond of playing the old cracked records.

    We’re really getting down to the nitty gritty if the current big bone of contention is flying the flag over the City Hall.

    Peter may be grasping for an alternative but this doesn’t quite seem to be it. He’s a stubborn survivor but he’s hardly Deng Xaioping or Gorbachev is he?

    Nor I quickly add is the Louth TD quite like Nelson Mandela. Its quite a shock for them to realise that the age of poltical romance is over.

  • “His speech to a home crowd”

    Brian, as I pointed out on an earlier thread, it’s much more sensible to link to the speech than to rely on a journalist’s selection. I link to these primary sources, where possible, irrespective of the source. I note that John O’Dowd, who provided Peter Robinson with an open goal, is not mentioned let alone quoted in either the BBC or the News Letter articles that we miserable commenters have been presented with 🙁

    Let’s take a little look at the (possibly dodgy) statistics on identity provided in the 2010 NILT survey:

    British 37%, Irish 25%, Ulster 4% and Northern Irish 28%

    About 60% of Catholics and Protestants opt for the Irish or British label respectively and about 25% each for the Northern Irish label. Others go British 33%, Irish 18% and Northern Irish 37%.

    Might this apparently growing attachment to the Northern Irish brand explain why Peter is playing that card, a card that’s slightly more popular amongst Protestants than Catholics?

    PR: We are seeking a shared society not joint authority. We want a shared society within the Union. We want everyone to enjoy the benefits of being with Britain

    I’d have thought a shared society in Northern Ireland is much more crucial along with close relationships with the rest of these two islands which is why I commended shared sovereignty with the merger of Strands 2 and 3. Joint Rule, on the other hand, was and is a recipe for London and Dublin to reinforce the positions of strong Unionists and strong Nationalists.

  • So Robinson has a look at the census figures and has decided, knowing that there’s a likely lift in morale for catholics in the result, [and inevitably with the zero sum politics here, will mean a drop in unionist morale]. This is why he’s coming out with these reassuring noises to head off that effect. But as Alex Kane pointed out last week, if Alliance can’t attract these catholic unionists, and they are clearly more and more a unionist party whatever Ford claims, where and who are these catholic unionists voting for? and how can he get some of them for the DUP? It doesn;t add up, Peter.

  • Mick Fealty


    “Its quite a shock for them to realise that the age of poltical romance is over.”

    Nail, hammer, head…

  • “they [APNI] are clearly more and more a unionist party whatever Ford claims”

    Daniel, have you looked at the Anna Lo transfers in South Belfast? They mainly go to Nationalist parties, in particular the SDLP. Maybe just as well for the SDLP as McDonnell transfers to McDevitt don’t look that good.

  • Brian Walker

    Not Catholic votes for the DUP, Catholic acceptance of the Union

    I’m arguing for Peter to level with unionits and stop pretending that he can appeal to Catholics as distinct from nationalists.

    Enough nationalists may well be susceptible to an authentic vision of a new NI in an Irish context within the Union but no senior politician has yet had the courage and convtiction to lay it out.

    nevin. this is not what this thread is about , it’s part of the background and I’ll leave you to it.

  • “It’s quite a shock for them to realise that the age of political romance is over.”

    I wouldn’t put my shirt on that one; the ‘romance’ would begin all over if so-called Dissident Republicans launched a bombing campaign in London or other major cities across the water. There’s unfinished business.

  • RegisterForThisSite

    I can’t believe the census figures will be as good/bad as people are now expecting.

    Can I ask what exactly does describing yourself as “Northern Irish” mean politically. Like the British and Irish labels explain themselves, but well Northern Irish seems to be more of a well Northern Irish nationalism sans both Britain and Ireland.

    If this is the moniker being adopted is it really a good thing for the DUP and unionism as it appears to move somewhat away from the union, which is where Northern Ireland is at the moment.

    Yes it also moves away from a united Ireland, but a united Ireland is currently only an ideal.

    It’s painless to adapt the ideal to the new consensus, however, is the DUP ready to adapt the Union to the new consensus.

    Funnily enough, after reading Peters speech, I was watching the seven ages of Britain, it covered the 17th century.

    King Billy was actually a nasty bit of work, in 1697 a law was passed forcing poor people to wear a badge to mark them out in public, Godwins Law prevents me making the obvious comparison. But I’m not sure paying homage to King William is really a good idea

  • Greenflag


    ‘Irish Nationalism is the antithesis to a peaceful and stable Northern Ireland. ‘

    No more than is Northern Unionism and probably a good deal less than whats coming from some of the more extreme elements within ‘unionism ‘

    Irish ‘nationalism ‘ in NI and the Republic is undergoing an adaptation to changing economic and political circumstances both within the British Union and the wider European Union . SF are a part of that but only a part and of political significance only in Northern Ireland .

    If this is interpreted as a lack of confidence in broader Irish ‘nationalism ‘ then more fool the interpreter . Irish ‘nationalism ‘ (of the moderate variety) is inherently more adaptable and flexible and open to outside influences than is traditional NI unionism . It’s recent political history (1959 through to the present) has shown that it’s capable of reaching out into the wider world via the Anglo /Irish FTA , joining the EU , UN peacekeeping , Eurozone etc.

    Northern Unionism to the extent that it has reached out anywhere- it has been from behind HMG’s wide coattails and it only feels really secure behind those coattails despite some recent signs that some are trying to move beyond the ‘straitened jacket’.

  • Yes, Brian. I spotted that error just too late to correct it. Of course Robinson is not seriously expecting likely votes for the union from that quarter to go on to beefit his pasrty. I think he’s made a total hash of this whole theory of where catholic votes can go, and, as you said the gloating tone will cancel out any outreach even for potential referendum votes for the union from catholics.

  • BarneyT

    We should be talking in terms of Irish Nationalists and British Nationalists, as the unionist parties are nationalist parties too. This is important to understand the scale of conversion that is on the table here. ..if Peter is correct.
    Perhaps Peter is playing to his own backyard here for fear of losing them. Perhaps he has to present them with the notion that he is the great converter and protector of the Union…as it is under threat (whether Scotland breaks away or not).
    There are many flavours in Northern Ireland. Using the term Northern Ireland does not always indicate you are pro-union or do not harbour aspirations for a settled and united Ireland.
    I can’t see a shift of this nature towards the DUP…nor can I see the Alliance picking up votes the majority of these voters. Any catholic that wants to remain as we are is more likely to reach out to those they feel they want to share this chunk of land with i.e. moderate unionists and therefore the UUP.
    The DUP and SF may become tired for many and I can see apathy becoming a factor. However I see the UUP being in a stronger and therefore threatening position for the DUP than I do the SDLP for SF.

  • Greenflag

    @ brian walker ,

    ‘I hadn’t noticed any particular loss of nationalist self confidence, not that I would really know, just a sense all round that the old nostrums aren’t creating much momentum any more. ‘

    That is just as it should be . The age of political romance may be over (whether it be for the Union or a UI ) and the ‘constitutional question ‘ settled again at least temporarily but the ‘dreary steeples ‘ will remain even in an NI with some ‘catholic ‘unionists and some protestant ‘republicans /nationalists ‘.

    The political dynamics brought about by mandatory power sharing are still being worked through . It therefore should’nt be surprising that ‘ no senior unionist politician has yet had the courage and conviction to lay it out.

    In any event Catholics/Nationalists in NI have long accepted the Union -just not in the same way that Protestant/Unionists have . What has happened over the past two decades is that the ‘Union ‘ has become more amenable to more people on the C/N side than heretofore .Part of that has also been the perceived drop in the Republic’s economic performance in recent years .

    Neither NI or ROI can remain navel gazed to their own issues while seemingly oblivious to the near term prospects for the UK economy and the ‘uncertainty in it’s ongoing confrontations with the EU .

  • “the tired old zero sum game between unionism and nationalism. … They tend to live on ageing triumphs like the GFA or St Andrew’s which owed much to external pressure rather than build momentum by themselves.”

    Brian, the 1998 Agreement’s constitutional arrangement enshrined the ‘old zero-sum game’ and the St Andrew’s Act’s change to FM selection reinforced it. By the way, I added some identity background to bring some context to the conversation.

  • Charlie Sheens PR guru


    ‘Daniel, have you looked at the Anna Lo transfers in South Belfast? They mainly go to Nationalist parties, in particular the SDLP. Maybe just as well for the SDLP as McDonnell transfers to McDevitt don’t look that good.’

    I agree with the first half of the statement because it’s true. But what does the last bit mean? Do you understand that those McDonnell transfers represent Don’t represent McDonnell supporters but Lo supporters? It means its people who went All. 1 SDLP 2. SDLP 3. I think it’s quite telling that such a igh fraction of alliance voters voted for not one, but both SDLP candidates next. It re-enforces your point btw.

  • Greenflag

    ‘King Billy was actually a nasty bit of work,’

    Actually for his time and we should only make judgements of historical figures in the context of their times -he was not such an ‘ogre ‘. In fact he was probably much more ‘progressive’ than a majority of his fellow european aristocrats of those times .

    The manner in which he became King remains shrouded in subterfuge /cabals,/cliques and intrigue . But then ‘democracy ‘ as we now know or more correctly knew it was still 250 years in the future .
    King Billy had no crystal ball neither does the present monarch or indeed the prime minister .

  • CSPRG, I’m not a statistician but Alasdair’s Lo top-up was about 8.5% yet Conal’s yield was only about 60%. What do you make of that? Could it be that some ‘soft Unionists/Nationatists’ were voting Alastair 1 and UUP 2?

  • ayeYerMa

    RegisterForThisSite, the DUP has always been as much, if not more, Ulster Nationalist than British Nationalist — there is nothing new in this respect at all.

  • Charlie Sheens PR guru

    I don’t quite follow your numbers, but the point is, when someone fails to meet the quota on first preferences as McDonnell did here, then surplus votes from Lo come in to play. This new McDonnell surplus is only thanks to Lo, so only Lo’s voters who transferred to McDonnell get their votes considered for a second surplus redistribution. i.e. Anyone who put McDonnell cannot influence McDevitt or anyone else as their no. 1s were not enough to even elect their own candidate. Therefore there is no evidence of where McDonnell 1 voters go next.

    Nicholas whyte is the best at this but the numbers here mean Alliance voters generally went ~40% to SDLP, ~20% green, ~30% unionist, ~5% SF, ~5% Left parties. Considering those green and left parties who transfer more to the SDLP over everyone else then it reads even better for the SDLP.

  • RegisterForThisSite

    Yeah Greenflag, I do normally stress ‘context’ to people. However, unionism never add that rider to King Billy.

    The speech also stuck in my head because of Robinsons quote, I had immediately thought of Jebediah Springfield and

    “A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man”

    and then all the other similarities fell into place between Springfield and NI, for instant ‘Whacking Day’ and the 12th

    I’ll get me coat………..

  • RegisterForThisSite

    AyeYerMa, yeap I agree, hence the Doc’s alledged quote Marty “We can rule ourselves” but with the outcome in the Scottish Ref likely to be Devo Max, couple with Wales quietly passing their forst Bill in a few centuries I wonder if Robinson isn’t also teeing NI for the same.

    So does Robinson want to be British or does he just not want to be Irish

  • Nevin [12.46] I hadn’t seen those figures, Nevin, but as you say, some transfers within the SDLP suggest the good Doctor’s bedside mamnner is no more subtle at the elections. Dear, dear.

  • Ruarai


    What he’s after is Catholics (those who are most decidedly not – or are no longer – nationalists) who are prepared to redefine their national and cultural identity within the context of an open ended peace.

    No. Robinson is seeking to consolidate and further broaden the DUP’s reach on middle class (former UUP) voters who have always been pro-Union but who need reassurance that the DUP is no longer a synonym for bigotry and hysteria – the comforting thought that the DUP has softened rather than the possibility that they may have hardened. (A largely false comfort shared by their fellow converts, aged 40-plus and sporting the green, take succor from while privately contemplating their own post 2000 voting preferences.)

    Think: Romney’s inconsistent “appeals” to African-American voters. On his shrill days, Romney was speaking at African-Americans while really speaking to the Rednecks, reassuring the yahoos that he was their strongman bringing the upstarts to heel. On Romney’s more moderate days he was speaking at (again at) African-Americans while really speaking to liberal Republicans, attempting to reassure them he wasn’t really ‘as one’ with his Redneck base.

    Sound familar?

    Romney pursued, as Robinson will eventually discover, a transparently inconsistent playbook. Robinson’s will of course have similar conversion success rates to Mill, about which he’ll care little. After all his “outreach” is simply a PR exercise designed to consolidate DUP growth and retention within the traditional unionist block at the expense of his traditional rivals. Conversion of new Catholic members while nice members pales as a priority for the time being.

    Unionist target market management explaining the real dynamic driving Robinson’s inconsistent rhetoric.

    Incidentally, SF are doing exactly the same thing with their own “outreach to unionists” rhetoric. It’s great for them being seen by former SDLP voters (not to mention southerners) speaking in old SDLP-style persuasion language. The balance the lack of the old Ticofaidh ar la stuff by maintaining the pretense that their outreach is part of an impending strategic advancement, thereby attempting to keep as many traditional SF voters on board as is necessary.

    If this theory sounds like it has a contradiction, good; it should. Like all good political theories it attempts to capture not only what’s happening by how the contradictions inherent reveal how the ultimate break and transition to something else will come about. Eventually Robinson will no longer be able to maintain The John Hume-cum-Ian Paisley routine – too many pressures to act the hard man will undo him. Eventually SF will no longer be able to convince people that SF hasn’t done other than embrace the language (if not the spirit) of its Nationalist rival, a language and politics it not so long ago considered grounds for inciting all sorts, least we forget.

    Them’s the breaks.

    DUP and SF engagement rhetoric has bugger all to do with actual persuasion or engagement. In SF’s case it has the perverse effect of debasing those terms in pursuit of a traditional “victory” and at the expense of an actual dialogue. What’s particularly cynical about this use of language is that SF intend for unionist to see through it, get all flustered at the doublespeak, and be seen rejecting “outreach initiatives”. Their rejection, particularly in its more intemperate incarnations, leaves SF supporters and press friends reassured that the forward-thinkers and the forward-motion belongs on the Green’s team and, “sure there’s no talking to them despite our sincere efforts to build the peace”.

    All-the-while actual engagement or new thinking is on hold until new leaders emerge.

  • simtrib


    About 10% of young people in Northern Ireland now have one Catholic community background parent and one Protestant community background parent, up from 5% during the troubles. Their votes are as good as any other, wherever they appear in Horseman’s predictions, the school census, or are assigned by NISRA in response to those two census questions for 2011. Increasingly many of them wouldn’t know a transubstantiation from a sola scriptora.

    They are the battleground now, and will be even more so in the future.

  • Ruarai


    that’s great – but it has nothing to do with my point. My point was not that Catholics (in the NornIron my father was an innocent man cultural sense) are immune to arguments for the Union. Of course they’re not.

    My argument was that Catholic outreach is not what Robinson’s “Catholic outreach” is primarily about.

    As I said above, I suggest a better model for explaining Robinson’s otherwise inconsistent noises and postures about Catholics (notice he speaks about them much more than with them or to them) is to consider his attempts to consolidate the DUP dominant position atop the UUP, and their chums, within the traditional PUL community.

    It’s not an original sin in politcis by any means but let’s dispense with the notion that he’s engaged in something virtuous here.

  • Greenflag

    Never mind what they say just watch what they do .

    Let’s see how Mr Robinson deals with last night’s throwback event to the ‘good old days ‘ of Belfast ‘democracy ‘ .