Nationalism is in crisis as more Catholics define themselves as Northern Irish, First Minister Peter Robinson has claimed.
A section of Catholics hold views on social issues, education and the economy which are not reflected in the positions of the SDLP and Sinn Fein, the DUP leader added.
“There is new political space developing in Northern Ireland,” he said.
“It is the DUP’s aim that unionism will own it and lead it. The people in this space do not fit the stereotypes.
“They are not coming with a textbook nationalist wish-list demanding it be satisfied but rather they want to know what we will deliver for them, their family and Northern Ireland.”
Mr Robinson, addressing a South Antrim party dinner on Saturday night, said the fastest growing section of society is that which classifies itself as “other”.
The fastest growing identity group is that whose members classify themselves as Northern Irish.
“While the reaction of commentators may have erred on the unthinking, the reaction of nationalism has opted for the hysterical,” he said.
“This reaction is not a surprise to me as it reveals where the real political crisis lies – in Irish nationalism.”
He claimed the republican goal of a united Ireland is as far away as ever.
“Their grand plan by their grand strategist [Gerry] Adams has failed.
“To avoid the hard truths of home, he wanders the world trying to convince the ignorant and the gullible that it’ll happen any day now.
“The dirty work of playing the sectarian card he leaves to his henchmen, something he was always wont to do.”
Mr Robinson has previously called for change in the practice of schooling Catholic and Protestant children separately, a proposal criticised by the Catholic church.
Some Catholic and Protestants were united recently in opposition to the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast.
Mr Robinson added: “Support for the Union is at record levels. The forms and patterns of identity in Northern Ireland are inexorably shifting. It is the DUP that has recognised and is seeking to harness them to maintain the Union and build Northern Ireland’s second century.”
The DUP leader said the fastest growing section of society is those who classify themselves as ‘other’.
“The greatest growth in identity group is those who classify themselves as Northern Irish. A recent YouGov poll shows a section of Catholics whose views on social issues, education and the economy are not reflected in the positions of the SDLP and Sinn Fein.”
However, a Sinn Fein spokesman last night threw down a challenge to the First Minister.
“If Peter Robinson is so sure of the constitutional position of the six counties then his opposition to a border poll is difficult to understand,” he said.
“His arrogant branding of nationalists and republican voters as unionists is equally bizarre. The fact is that census figures are about to be published and it is our belief that they will point in one direction.
“Mr Robinson’s belief that the DUP can attract support from within the Catholic community at the same time as they ally themselves with anti-Catholic parading organisations and bands, or at local government level they practice policies of exclusion, flies in the face of the political reality.”
SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell responded that if Mr Robinson “truly had an eye to the future, he would recognise that Northern Irish society is not as clear-cut as he thinks”.
He added: “Uppermost in people’s minds is the life they can expect in the present and the future, and in working-class areas across Northern Ireland the DUP is failing to deliver.
“The First Minister would not want me to talk about the work we in the SDLP do engaging with people in working-class loyalist areas, but we do – in Antrim’s Steeple Estate and elsewhere.
“What I hear is people saying that the DUP will try and keep those communities quiet by throwing money at the occasional project or using them as a stick to beat down cross-border cooperation, but they are doing little to actively improve the lives and conditions of those areas they claim as their heartlands.
“Peter Robinson’s ambition is not for the people of the north – it is for unionist domination at any price; starting with the repression of Irishness and the subsuming of the UUP.
“He has made his position particularly clear by saying he believes that a shared society means everyone sharing in being British – running contrary to all the fine words used when the Cohesion, Sharing and Integration Working Group was set up.
“This is the kind of sectarian, partisan hatred we heard from the DUP in the bad old days.
“Peter Robinson might speak with a softer voice than his predecessor, but his message is still the same: when it comes to a truly shared future, his opinion is still ‘never, never, never’.”