Ben Lowry: The extent of religious influence on the DUP vote is over-stated in NI, let alone GB

Ian Paisley, above in 1985 during his Smash Sinn Fein campaign, had a mainly political, not fundamentalist, vote. Picture Pacemaker
Ian Paisley, above in 1985 during his Smash Sinn Fein campaign, had a mainly political, not fundamentalist, vote. Picture Pacemaker

The misconception of the DUP and its voters is not restricted to Great Britain – it is prevalent in Northern Ireland too.

A lazy cliché, with regard to DUP voters and Ulster Protestants in general, is of religious extremists. More than once as a young reporter I was told to phone the Free Presbyterians for an outlandish quote when a ‘lewd’ or ‘blasphemous’ pop or stage show came to town.

Fire and brimstone preachers are almost invariably Protestant, but they serve a small minority of that population.

Free Ps were perhaps 1.5% of Protestants at their height, less now. There is a larger pool of like-minded Christians in various churches, but they are around 10% of Protestants.

If Ian Paisley’s vote had been a fundamentalist rather than political one, he might not have held elected office beyond council level.

Northern Ireland in the 20th century was markedly more religious than England, and remains so today despite a long-term decline in faith. It is closer to America in church attendance and belief in God.

But if you are atheist, and consider religious belief to be superstition, then traditionally the more superstitious community is the Catholic one. Belief in God was higher (and church attendance vastly so) than among Protestants from the 1960s to the 21st century (Catholic Mass attendance is down sharply since 2000). In 1968, weekly attendance was at 95% among NI Catholics but already under 50% for Church of Ireland and Presbyterians.

When the DUP got 26% of the vote in 1981, and outpolled the UUP, this was a reflection of the polarisation of the times more than a religious vote.

Some core areas of DUP support have always been loyalist estates that have low church membership levels.

It was in parts of East Belfast where the DUP always polled well that pubs illegally opened in the mid 1980s, in protest at the Sunday opening ban that did not end until 1987.

A seminal moment for my understanding of the gulf between religious and political DUP support was the 1990 referendum on Sunday opening of leisure facilities in Castlereagh, one of the few councils that ever had a DUP majority. Opening was backed by 13,000 votes to 2,600.

The rise in the DUP since 1998 has been a reaction to the rise of Sinn Fein. When I did exit polls in Ballygowan and North Down on Assembly election day in May 2007, voters often said things such as that they would tolerate Sinn Fein in power if the DUP was present as a counter-balance.

There is a similar feeling now. In my exit poll at Elmgrove, East Belfast on Thursday, a small but noticeable number of voters said they voted Alliance in 2015 but were now reluctantly DUP, such was their concern at republican conduct (I will write more on those findings soon).

It is not primarily a religious or socially conservative vote. The last data I saw on support for gay marriage among party voters was that it was lowest in DUP voters, but even they were 50% pro.

This chimes with findings in other conservative parts of the West. Even the US state most hostile to gay marriage, Mississippi, is 33% in favour.

Many DUP voters are ultra conservative on social matters. The party knows it cannot betray its Christian heritage, which remains strong (DUP members were always far more likely to be Free P than voters). The party even attracts some non DUP voters because of this conservatism.

But its voters, while as strong as ever on the constitutional question, are liberalising fast. Jeff Dudgeon writes on this in an article for the think tank Policy Exchange (that we re-publish tomorrow). He recounts how gay rights was so unpopular in the 1980s that even Alliance did not back legalising gay sex.

DUP leaders are depicted as Neanderthal but they can see the trends, and are figuring out how to reflect and balance sharply diverging views among their supporters.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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