Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

Robinson could take lesson from Catholic parents

The First Minister says Northern Ireland's future in the UK could depend on Catholics voting across the divide. But the Union is safer than he thinks, argues Henry McDonald

Earlier this autumn Peter Robinson - or at least the office of First and Deputy First Minister - maintained radio silence over the question of the UK's future.

Specifically, Robinson's officials failed to answer repeated requests for an interview with the Guardian on the subject of how devolution has impacted on the Union.

Not only did they fail to set up a sit-down chat, but the highly-paid PR public servants didn't even bother to confirm that no interview would be given.

To be charitable, maybe the request never got through to the First Minister's office. Or perhaps not - given that he gave a strange and wide-ranging interview to The Times at the weekend.

Rather than speak with the paper of the liberal centre-Left in Britain, Robinson chose the Murdoch Press instead.

Which is his choice, of course, although it is perplexing that, given his appeal for Catholic support for the Union, he might have chosen rather to speak to the nationalist Press on either side of the border. Better still, Robinson could have made an even bigger splash in nationalist Ireland had he opted to go on RTE's Late Late Show, for instance.

Why does any of this matter? Because what he had to say in The Times is important in terms of unionism's future - particularly its relationship with the northern Catholic community.

Robinson stated that the Republic's economic woes and its entrapment inside the eurozone would make the goal of Irish unity unpalatable and unrealisable.

Given the narrowing electoral gap between the DUP and Sinn Fein, Robinson needs his brand of unionism to become more attractive to middle-class Catholics.

He can look to recent opinion polls that show a significant minority of Catholics in favour of retaining the link with the UK. In one poll, this was more than 20%.

Yet even if that figure was exaggerated, even a 10%-15% pro-Union Catholic vote could still be significant in any border poll on the province's future.

Beyond the dismal science of economics, however, there are other means that Robinson could deploy to attract that section of the population. One of these is the fate of Catholic grammar schools and the selection process formerly known as the 11-plus.

At present, Catholic parents in better-off areas are defying not only the Sinn Fein Education Minister, John O'Dowd, but also the SDLP, their Church's hierarchy and even some head teachers.

These refuseniks are sending their children off this month to take part in the privatised 11-plus examinations that the Catholic grammar sector has set as entrance qualifications. Indeed, a large number of Catholic parents are also hedging their bets and putting their children into the other tests for the state grammar schools, as well.

The result of this is rising tension within the Catholic primary sector. In one south Belfast school, for instance, there have been ructions at recent parent-teacher meetings over the staff's refusal to shape the curriculum around the private entrance exams.

Nonetheless, it is a given that these parents of primary 6 pupils will be dipping into their post-Christmas wallets in January to pay for the private tutoring needed to bolster their children's chances of gaining a grammar school place next autumn. They and their kids will vote with their feet.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs of academic selection, here is one area where the DUP and Robinson could win friends and influence on the other side of the traditional divide. If Robinson was serious about making the DUP more attractive, he and his spokespersons could express their admiration for the Catholic grammar sector as continuing centres of educational excellence.

The DUP chief has, in recent years, had some success in secularising the party.

And, given the personal scandals that beset not only his family of late and those of some of his party colleagues, Robinson must realise that the days of the DUP as Ulster's moral police force are long over.

People, in general, want to be good, as George Orwell noted, but not too good. And Catholic people in Northern Ireland don't want to be told that their faith is blind and that they are living in darkness. They want - and deserve - respect for their belief system, rather than patronising insults.

The trouble with unionism over the last few decades, but, in particular, the years since the IRA ceasefire, has been the inability to separate symbolism from substance.

Robinson warns in The Times that he could be the last unionist First Minister, as if that marked some apocalypse for the Union itself. But the question is: what if there was a nationalist First Minister? Could he, or she, alone force Northern Ireland out of the UK?

The answer, according to the Good Friday Agreement (a settlement the DUP opposed, but later adopted under the camouflage of the St Andrews accord) is no. Only a constitutional referendum could determine the status of Northern Ireland. If a majority remains in favour of the Union, then a nationalist First Minister would still be operating within the British state and be wholly dependent on the fiscal life-support machine that is the UK Treasury.

Yet Robinson was only last week prepared to press the eject button and crash the current power-sharing Executive over a possible dumping of the Crown on the badges of prison officers.

Maybe he could explain that one if and when he sits down on RTE's comfy sofa with Ryan Turbidy some Friday night soon.

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