Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

Why Catholic unionists still won't vote for DUP

Royal praise: the Queen’s visit to the Republic impressed many nationalists

"It's all good," Fr Eugene O'Neill told me. He was talking about the reaction to his comments on the BBC and in the News Letter that Catholics should - and would - reconsider support for nationalism.

The Republic, he suggested, was becoming "a cold house for Catholics", while in the UK religion was being supported by ministers like Baroness Warsi, a Muslim.

"Elderly priests, some in their seventies, who I would have thought of as of nationalist, have been ringing me and saying 'You know, I think that, too'. No parishioners have made negative comments," Fr O'Neill said.

He is no middle-class dilettante - he has an interesting background. He is currently a curate in St Mary's on the Hill in Glengormley, a parish on the fringes of north Belfast, where many older parishioners will have suffered from sectarian violence or intimidation.

Before that, he ministered at the Church of Our Lady in Ballymena's Harryville estate until 2003, a period when angry Protestant and loyalist mobs had to be held back by police from the church doors.

His grandfather was a member of the old IRA, who fought in the Irish War of Independence and his grandmother drew a state IRA pension as a result.

Fr O'Neill is an unlikely convert to unionism. But then he isn't - not yet anyway.

He has, he told me, got to the point where he no longer considers himself a nationalist, but that is as far as it goes.

Opinion polls would suggest that most local Catholics, who feel comfortable in the UK, don't support unionist parties. So the DUP and UUP should not count their chickens yet.

Flag-waving loyalism put some off, but royalism is not always the problem.

Fr O'Neill started this debate with a Thought for the Day broadcast, in which he praised the Queen, portraying her as a model parent and grandmother, who was to be admired.

The feedback was positive, so he used his next Thought for the Day to question support for nationalism.

He contrasted the Irish government's decision to shut its embassy in the Vatican with the strong links the British government had built before and after Pope Benedict's visit there.

He has been publicly supported by Michael Kelly, the Northern Ireland-born deputy editor of the Irish Catholic.

So why aren't all these guys voting DUP, as Peter Robinson recommends? For one thing, there have always been people who thought like this, but they tend to want a recognition of Irish identity. A formative moment for Fr O'Neill was the statement by Francis Campbell, the Newry-born former British ambassador to the Vatican, that he wanted to be both British and Irish.

Many pro-Union Catholics give nationalist parties - not unionist ones - most credit for making this a fairer society.

The UK may be okay, but political unionism still bears watching.

Both Sinn Fein and the SDLP are well plugged into these shifting opinions. That is what lies behind their recent openness to things like Royal meetings.

Unionist parties will have to make big changes to woo these voters away from the parties they currently support, but the opportunity is undeniably there.

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