ALEX KANE: Robinson is playing a canny hand

QUITE a few people seem to have been surprised by Peter Robinson’s comment that his “task is to make voting DUP as comfortable a choice for a Catholic as anyone else”. I wasn’t surprised, for it fits in with what I wrote about him a few weeks ago.

“His mind will almost certainly have shifted to the legacy issue and he will want to be remembered as the unionist leader who made Northern Ireland a united, safer and more confident place. I think he is very serious when he talks about a ‘new’ Northern Ireland and I suspect that he may be prepared to be more creative and daring than anyone could imagine.

“The electorate may think they have opted for polarisation, but I don’t think that’s what Peter Robinson has opted for. He knows that an ‘us-and-them’ solution can’t guarantee the Union or lead to a ‘new’ Northern Ireland: and he also knows that he is in a strong enough position now to take a few calculated risks.”

Robinson may have used the Life and Times survey (which suggested that 52% of Catholics are content to remain in the UK) as the launch pad for his comments, but I’m sure he knows that those figures must be taken with a very large pinch of salt!

We know only two things for certain: the vast majority of Catholics who vote, vote for either the SDLP or Sinn Fein – both of whom have Irish unity at the core of their manifesto; while, at the assembly election, only 4% of nationalist votes transferred to either the DUP or UUP. All of which means that the battle to convert Catholics into the unionist camp is going to be a very long and probably very confusing one.

Poll after poll since the early 1970s has indicated that somewhere in the region of 20% of Catholics support the Union, yet only a very tiny percentage of them vote for pro-Union parties. So what is it that stops them? There is an argument that they would have felt uncomfortable with the UUP’s Orange links (formally broken only a few years ago) and the DUP’s Free Presbyterian roots.

Yet very few Catholics got involved with the Campaign for Equal Citizenship in the mid-1980s or Bob McCartney’s avowedly pluralist United Kingdom Unionist Party. Stranger still, very few Catholics have been involved with the Northern Ireland Conservatives (officially recognised in October 1989) and almost none voted for the UCUNF project last year.

I suspect that the total Catholic membership of the DUP, UUP and NI Conservatives wouldn’t make triple figures. In the lifetime of the assembly there has only been one Catholic unionist MLA (Sir John Gorman). And, if memory serves me well, there were no Catholic unionist MPs between 1921-1972 in Stormont and no Catholic unionist MPs elected to Westminster.

As for the nominally pro-Union Alliance Party, which boasts of a sizeable Catholic membership, it polls best in constituencies which have comfortable unionist majorities – which indicates, perhaps, that even those Catholics can’t actually bring themselves to vote for an unambiguously unionist party. Indeed, some may only vote Alliance because they think there is no point in voting SDLP or Sinn Fein in somewhere like East Belfast and they simply want one less ‘unionist’ elected.

So, if Catholics have been so reluctant to either join or vote for a pro-Union party in the past, how likely is it that Peter Robinson will be able to attract them?

In one sense it doesn’t actually matter if he is successful. It’s a great PR strategy and follows on nicely from his speech about integrated education. He has moved onto turf which is more usually associated with Alliance and the liberal end of the UUP.

He has annoyed the hell out of elements of the SDLP and Sinn Fein. And if, in a couple of years time, David Cameron is still looking for extra seats to get him back into government, then a softly-spoken, pluralist DUP looks a much better option than the UUP. (On that very subject, I have been picking up some very strange rumours that the NI Conservatives are trying to recruit two or three of the UUP MLAs to their cause. I was even told that Cameron himself would be willing to give them his personal blessing. Now there’s a game to keep you guessing over the summer recess!)

Anyway, back to the plot. For all of the talk and for all of the supposed statistical and opinion poll evidence it seems to me as though Catholic unionists are almost as elusive as the mythical unicorn: which, in turn, leads to the conclusion that a pursuit strategy is doomed to failure. If they do exist, then they are not voting on a scale which could be described as significant.

Maybe they could be won over by an entirely new political/electoral vehicle? Maybe, but since they don’t vote for openly unionist parties and they don’t vote for the more pluralist varieties, then what, precisely, would they have to be offered to get them to vote for a pro-Union party? And whatever that may be, I’m pretty sure that Peter Robinson isn’t going to turn the DUP upside down and inside out just to attract them.

I think the surest thing we can assume in all of this is that there is a Catholic demographic which is content enough to remain within the United Kingdom. That doesn’t mean they are unionist and it doesn’t even mean that they are, in any active or intellectual sense, pro-Union. It just means that they don’t want all the hassle and potential risk which would accompany a newly united Ireland.

The task of unionism, therefore, is to ensure that it behaves in such a way that it doesn’t antagonise or unsettle that Catholic demographic. In other words, neither the DUP nor the UUP needs to attract the votes of that demographic (although that would be a happy bonus and should be aimed at): they just need to make sure that they do nothing which pushes them into the SDLP or Sinn Fein camp.

I don’t know how serious Peter Robinson really is about winning over Catholic voters, but it seems to me that he has, yet again, played a fairly canny hand. It will be interesting, though, to see if his grassroots are of the same opinion!