Belfast Telegraph

Message is clear: nobody will listen to old stereotypes

Voting for the DUP should be as comfortable a choice for a Catholic as it is for anyone else, writes Peter Robinson

The Life and Times survey made for interesting reading. I recognise the limitations that need to be observed in reading too much into any opinion poll, but the sense of trajectory is evident.

The survey showed that 73% of people favour Northern Ireland remaining a part of the United Kingdom, with 58% preferring to remain within the UK with devolution and 15% preferring to remain within the UK under direct rule.

Over the Assembly term, I hope to push that 58% figure even higher.

Support for a united Ireland has dropped to an all-time low of 16%. For the first time, more than 50% of people polled from a Catholic background said they wanted to remain part of the UK.

The headline from this survey is that the constitutional issue has been settled: people are happy to remain inside the UK.

That poses a challenge in terms of community expectation: parties that wave flags and expect votes will not advance: neither will those who indulge in meaningless 'Why can't we all get along?' platitudes.

What people want from political leadership is to make Northern Ireland work by offering substantive policies.

The argument of 'Union or unity' has been settled: everyone must work hard to make Northern Ireland the best part of the Union.

For years, republicans have described Northern Ireland as a 'failed political entity'; that is not reflected in the poll.

The number of people owing allegiance to Northern Ireland is on the increase: the institutions have bedded down, people are working together, the country is making progress.

It is through such stability and working together that the Union is made stronger.

The strategy for unionism is clear: we must demonstrate that we recognise a shared society in Northern Ireland is the best policy for maintaining the Union.

During the election campaign, I stated it was my aim to attract more people from a Catholic background to vote DUP.

This latest research shows there is a massive pool of support for the constitutional status quo beyond the traditional divide.

This survey shows the old certainties of Protestant=unionist and Catholic=nationalist belong to a bygone era. Anyone who relies on such stereotyping in elections will lose. Northern Ireland is moving forward inside the UK and people are comfortable with that.

My challenge, as the leader of unionism, is to attract some of the 52% of Catholics who say they are content to remain within the UK to vote DUP, or to identify more closely with the party: this will be achieved by demonstrating that we offer the best and most sensible policies on issues like education and the economy and we respect difference and cherish the freedom of individuals to follow their own faith.

My task is to make voting DUP as comfortable a choice for a Catholic as for anyone else. I know it's not a short journey and only actions will convince that politics can change.

Identity-based voting patterns are crumbling away. There is an openness to political debate that there has never been; people are not prepared to be pigeonholed based on their religious upbringing.

I welcome that and only backward political parties will fear such a direction of travel.

Unionism has nothing to fear from an electorate that reaches its conclusions based on the strength of the case, rather than the religious persuasion of the advocate.

As First Minister, it is my job to work for everyone and to make this part of the UK the best place to live. I and my Executive colleagues are working hard to deliver that goal.

Everyone has their part to play in keeping Northern Ireland moving in the right direction. I am encouraged that so many people - including those whose support is still presumed by the nationalist parties - share my vision for a strong Northern Ireland with functioning devolution within the UK.

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