Belfast Telegraph

Robinson casts political net into choppy waters to expand DUP base

The DUP leader is spreading his pro-Union message to Scotland. He'd do well to keep a weather eye on nationalist opinion back home, says Malachi O'Doherty

Peter Robinson was entitled to be surprised - and quite chuffed - at the publicity he got around his call for an end to sectarianism.

At his party conference at the weekend, he was only repeating some of his big themes when he said he would work for a unified educational system and a single, coherent community in Northern Ireland.

But the presumption of many in the media is that he is an old sectarian diehard who is struggling towards better relations with the Catholic community.

In reality, he is a politician doing what any party leader in his position would seek to do; he is working to expand his base.

He has secured as many Protestant votes as he is likely to get for his party, so he has to fish in new waters.

And he has been doing this for a while now. He caused shockwaves through the Catholic Church in Ireland a year ago when he said that he wanted to end "benign apartheid" in education.

The Catholic Church reacted reflexively, effectively accusing him of a sectarian-minded strike against them. What they missed was that Robinson's call was sounding like simple good sense to a lot of people in all communities.

And he has sought to impress Catholics with quiet gestures, like his tributes to the murdered police officer Ronan Kerr and to Michaela McAreavey.

There are things that Robinson gets wrong, however.

His bet - which costs him nothing - is that there is a constituency of Catholics who support the Union with Britain and that, even if he can't get first-preference votes from them, he might be able to get a few ticks further down the list, at the expense of the Ulster Unionists and the Alliance Party.

But he occasionally suggests that he doesn't quite grasp what Catholic unionism might look and sound like.

Tara Mills, on the BBC's Politics Show, asked Robinson if he wasn't contradicting his outreach to Catholics when he was defending the British monarchical symbolism of the Prison Service. He didn't get the point.

The point is that a lot of Catholics are now comfortable inside the Union and would be appalled at the prospect of being dumped into a bankrupt united Ireland; that doesn't mean that they are culturally British.

They may want stability within Northern Ireland. They may even sneer at republican jingoism. But that doesn't mean that they are crossing over to the point of feeling that crowns and Union flags resonate with something in their hearts the way they do for unionists.

They may find it a bit easier to cross the floor of the Assembly on pragmatic unionism; they are still going to wince if they are asked to toast the Queen.

Oh, there will be exceptions, of course. But I would think very few.

Now Robinson wants to go to Scotland and campaign for a 'No' vote in any forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence.

The Scots themselves are intrigued by this and there is speculation in the media there that he might be damaging his working relationship with the Scottish Nationalists and First Minister Alex Salmond (above), but I think Robinson is merely extending the campaign he advanced at his party conference.

It is unlikely that a DUP leader who is in partnership with Sinn Fein would worry about his ability to manage relations with the Scottish Nationalists.

What Robinson is doing in Scotland has two important elements.

The first is that he is spreading himself around a larger platform, the way confident political leaders do.

This is as close as the leader of a devolved parliament can come to having a foreign policy.

Martin McGuinness has already tried to stretch himself across the whole of Ireland; Robinson is seeking to have presence and influence across the historic territory that means the same to unionists as the Republic does to nationalists.

Secondly, he is seeking to be part of the big debate on the Union, hopefully to get some credit for helping to save it, but also with an ear to how northern Catholics are responding to his message. In Scotland, the debate on the Union will not be as chauvinistic as it would be here. Robinson can have a large stage on which he can argue the merits of the Union on pragmatic terms.

This can be a rehearsal for the referendum that may eventually be held here on Irish unity, but it can even be a substitute for it if the case is made well and effectively.

He can now have a big debate on the Union without Sinn Fein being party to it, but very much with a concern that northern Catholics should hear it and be persuaded.

He will blow it if he falls back into the old passion for sectional symbols and religious history. He probably has more sense.

And he will be strengthened - as he was by the panicked response of the Catholic Church to his call for a single education system - if nationalists hear this only as a threat.

He may be dreaming that he can be the saviour of the Union and demoralise republicanism by letting them see him defeat Scottish nationalism.

But even well short of that goal, he still has big gains to make.

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