Nationalism is in crisis while confident unionism can attract the support of more Catholics, First Minister Peter Robinson has claimed.
The DUP leader told a party gathering that the fastest-growing section of Northern Ireland society is neither ‘unionist’ or ‘nationalist’.
Instead many people are defining themselves as ‘Northern Irish’ — putting the nationalist goal of a united Ireland further away than ever, he argued.
In a speech expanding on the themes of his recent party conference, Mr Robinson said the real political crisis at present is within nationalism.
He said that the views of many Catholics on social issues, education and the economy are not reflected in the policies of the SDLP and Sinn Fein.
As a result a “new political space” is developing in the province which he said the DUP aims to take ownership of and lead.
“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,” he said.
Mr Robinson also responded to criticism from commentators that his depiction of ‘Catholic unionists’ is akin to the legendary myth of the unicorn — often referred to but rarely seen.
“In 1994 Fionnuala O’Connor produced her study of Northern Irish Catholics entitled In Search of a State: Catholics in Northern Ireland. I believe that 20 years later a growing proportion of Catholics are beginning to believe their search is over,” he told a party dinner in south Antrim.
He said the mindset of too many commentators is stuck in a Northern Ireland of the 1980s and 1990s and ignoring shifts in identity.
“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,” the first minister said.
Mr Robinson also referred to a paper that he said had emerged in the process which led to the talks between former SDLP leader John Hume and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in the 1990s.
“It predicted that within five to ten years their process would achieve a united Ireland. Two decades later and their goal is further away than ever. Their
grand plan by their grand strategist Adams has failed,” he said.
“I have also heard the hollow argument that because we seek a shared society we should not wave the Union flag. Such baloney. We are seeking a shared society not joint authority.
“Some in unionism wonder will our pursuit of Catholic votes lead to an abandonment of sections of unionism. The simple answer is ‘no’. It is not an either or situation. Unionism is not a religion.
“Unionism is... capable of attracting a working class Protestant, a Catholic businessman and an immigrant seeking to build a new life in our country.”