Ben Lowry: The DUP is increasingly at odds with its voters on moral matters

People react at Dublin Castle as the official results of the referendum on the 8th Amendment of the Irish Constitution on abortion are announced in favour of the yes vote. But people cheering the result were in part cheering end of 'Rome Rule', rather than the fact of terminations
People react at Dublin Castle as the official results of the referendum on the 8th Amendment of the Irish Constitution on abortion are announced in favour of the yes vote. But people cheering the result were in part cheering end of 'Rome Rule', rather than the fact of terminations

The two messages recorded in our ‘Tweets of the Day’ section (on the opposite page of our print edition and embedded within this online version below), are a good summary of the bind the DUP finds itself in.

In one of the tweets, the veteran left wing activist Eamonn McCann reminds us that social questions such as opposition to abortion and gay marriage are red lines for some leading DUP figures. If the party softens on those, it will clash with those core members.

The tweet beside it in our Tweet of the Day section, from Arlene Foster, points out how many votes her party got a year ago yesterday.

But it is this huge latter vote, of almost 300,000 people, that puts Mrs Foster on a collision course with fundamentalists in the DUP, who represent a tiny fraction of that vote (Free Presbyterians are less than 1% of Protestants).

To see how far removed the average DUP voter is from DUP policy on moral matters, consider the 2016 Life and Times Survey on abortion.

That research is often cited as proof of overwhelming support in Northern Ireland for liberalisation of the law on terminations. In the so-called hard cases, the figures are stark. For example, 81% of people think that abortion should be legal in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.

DUP leader Arlene Foster during her interview with David Blevins of Sky News. She described the referendum result cheering as "distasteful"

DUP leader Arlene Foster during her interview with David Blevins of Sky News. She described the referendum result cheering as "distasteful"

But the position is even more problematic for the DUP than that figure suggests, because support is highest among Protestants, at 84% (compared to 72% of Catholics).

In each hard case scenario Protestant support for liberalism is higher than Catholic:

In serious abnormalities, it is 72% Protestant, 62% Catholic.

In cases of rape of incest, 81% of Protestants / 69% of Catholics.

Where the pregnant mother will die, 85% of Protestants want abortion to be available, 75% Catholics.

In cases where there is a serious threat to the mother’s health, 78% of Protestants, 65% of Catholics.

The only scenario where the results are not broken down by religion is abortion on demand: 34% of all respondents support terminations in that scenario, while 60% do not (the other 6% do not know).

Given that in all other scenarios Protestant support for reform is markedly higher than Catholic support, it is fair to assume that Protestant support for abortion on demand is also higher than the overall average, and now 40%+.

And it might be higher still if the survey had asked people about whether a pregnant woman should be able to take an abortion pill on demand early in the pregnancy.

What this all means is that the DUP position, which to date has been opposition to all reform, and perhaps even use of petition of concern to block reform, puts them utterly at odds with Protestant voters — the people that Arlene Foster is citing in her tweet as a mandate.

For years I have written about the common misconception that Protestants in Northern Ireland are more socially conservative and religiously observant than Catholics.

This has been wrong for more than half a century and, as the above data shows, it is still wrong.

In 1968, weekly church attendance was observed by 95% of NI Catholics but under 50% for Church of Ireland and Presbyterians.

Latterly, Catholic support for gay marriage is higher than Protestant support for it, but that is partly because nationalist politicians have spoken out more on the matter.

But even on that topic, Protestant support is high — one survey found that even DUP voters were 50% pro, with all other party voters pro to a notably higher degree.

Gay marriage has swept the western world and even has growing support in less obviously ‘liberal’ places such as South America (albeit minimal support in Africa or the Islamic world). Even the US state most hostile to gay marriage, Mississippi, was 33% pro several years ago, probably more so now.

It has taken a long time for some pundits to see that a hard pro Union vote in NI is not a religious vote, despite decades-old proof of that.

A seminal moment in my understanding of this discrepancy came in 1990, shortly after I turned 18, when Castlereagh had a referendum on lifting the ban on Sunday opening of leisure facilities.

I cannot find the result online but remember it well, around 13,000 in favour and something like 2,600 against. In one of the few council areas that the DUP has had an outright majority, there was an overwhelming repudiation of a fundamentalist stance on the Sabbath.

The party is now more out of step with its voters on some of these questions than it has ever been, for two reasons: first, its vote is far bigger and more varied in outlook than it once was and, second, the general population has become steadily liberal on these matters.

But to add to the challenges facing the DUP, it is now in the spotlight in Great Britain on such topics. Arlene Foster said on Sky News last weekend that the celebrations in the Republic after the abortion result were “distasteful”.

Other people have made the same point, but it was a risky thing to say to a national audience. She could also have said that while abortion is no cause for celebration, she realised that the crowds in Dublin were partly cheering the final defeat of the ‘Home Rule is Rome Rule’ outcome that unionists accurately predicted a century ago, and which endured for 75 years after 1921 (divorce was only narrowly approved by voters as recently as 1995 and homosexuality was criminal in the Republic until 1993).

Amid the firm DUP line on abortion, Tory MPs have lined up to press for reform in Northern Ireland. Some of them seem to be sending a signal to the DUP: ‘We rely on you now but we don’t like you.’

The UK Supreme Court, clearly aware of popular sentiment on both sides of the Irish Sea, has (in effect) ordered Northern Ireland to liberalise in the ‘hardest’ cases.

My own view is that there is a compelling case to be made for a traditional position on many social questions —recently I argued against extending Sunday trading.

But the DUP must know that the huge support it now enjoys is more in spite of its social conservatism than because of it.

It is rooted in deep anger at what Sinn Fein has been allowed to do.

People will get angrier still when they see where legacy is heading – at best a moral equivalence between IRA and security forces (I fear that after years of coming inquiries, and the disgraceful hunt for ‘collusion’, even when patently not there, the state will if anything emerge worst).

Which leads to an unpalatable conclusion: the DUP is set to make concessions on the very things voters do not want it to concede, such SF demands on the Irish language and legacy, but is slow to concede the things people are relaxed about — moral and social issues.

It could listen to Jacob Rees Mogg, an opponent of abortion who says a referendum on it might be best for Northern Ireland. “There’s no point passing laws that society is overwhelmingly against,” he said.