Peter Robinson has said he wants to turn the DUP into a cross-community party.
The First Minister aims to tap into the growing Catholic support for the UK link which was revealed in a recent survey which showed that most Catholics no longer want to remove the border.
“My task is to make voting DUP as comfortable a choice for a Catholic as anyone else,” the First Minister writes in an article published in today’s Belfast Telegraph.
During last month’s election campaign Mr Robinson said that he hoped to attract more Catholics to the DUP by building up its centre right, pro-business credentials.
He had argued that many business-orientated Catholics would find the DUP’s economic policies a closer fit than Sinn Fein’s policies.
He has moved the campaign up a notch after reading the Northern Ireland Life and Times survey which found that, for the first time in the province’s history, a majority of Catholics favoured remaining in the UK over a united Ireland.
Mr Robinson points out that “support for a united Ireland has dropped to an all-time low of some 16%”.
He said: “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 United Kingdom to vote DUP or better still, to identify more closely with the party”.
In the article, Mr Robinson also said that the argument |over the union had now been settled.
He said: “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.”
He also argues that old orange and green 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.”
Last week’s survey was conducted by Ark, a joint project run by the University of Ulster and Queen’s University. Between October and December last year, 1,205 adults were interviewed.
Life and Times has shown rising Catholic support for UK membership since 1998, when it stood at 19%, or just under one in five. The figure reached 25% by 2005 and 47% last year.
Mr Robinson sees the swing as evidence that sectarian “identity based voting patterns are crumbling away”.
“The argument of ‘Union or Unity’ has been settled in favour of the Union: now everyone must work hard to make Northern Ireland the best part of that Union,” the DUP leader believes.
By Liam Clarke
If Peter Robinson bores down into the findings of the Northern Ireland Life and time survey over the summer, he will find more pointers for his political strategy.
He is right to say that the number of Catholics favouring the union shows that “there is a massive untapped pool of support for the constitutional status quo.” The question is, why is it untapped?
The same survey shows that only 2% of Catholics say they would vote for a unionist party, half for the DUP and half for the UUP.
The big question he needs to answer is how is it that many Catholics like the union but nearly all of them run a mile from political unionism?
The survey suggests that liking being in the UK is not the same thing as thinking of yourself as a unionist. When asked about it, only 1% of Catholics identify themselves as unionist, 54% say they are nationalists, while 45% say they are neither and 1% simply don’t know.
The most obvious explanation is that Catholics find political unionism a cold house.
They aren’t willing to support parties too strongly identified with Protestantism or the Orange Order and which are lukewarm at best to Catholic and nationalist culture.
They see no Catholics in senior positions in the DUP or, since the retirement of Sir John Gorman, in the UUP either.
Catholics notice that. They also notice unionists like Tom Elliott swithering about whether he could attend a GAA match and deciding not to as a matter of principle. And they notice when DUP members like Ruth Patterson refuse to speak to a Sinn Fein mayor.
They may understand the reasons and not get too annoyed, but they can’t identify with a political movement where these attitudes are considered acceptable.
Many Catholics feel they can’t trust unionist parties to defend their interests. That is why they vote overwhelmingly for nationalist parties.
It is generally not about removing the border; it is often more a matter of sticking up for their interests within Northern Ireland.
Mr Robinson is right when he says winning Catholic support is “not a short journey and only actions will convince that politics can change.”
He has already take some appropriate actions. Attending Ronan Kerr’s funeral mass and forging a decent working relationship with Martin McGuinness sent out the right signals.
His call for integrated education and a shared future also struck a chord, though it aroused some suspicion, too.
Since the title ‘unionist’ is an obstacle to many pro-union Catholics, changing his party’s name to the Democratic Party would be the sort of bold stroke that might work if he could bring his existing supporters with him.
A more immediate priority is tackling the canteen culture of bias that still lurks within the DUP and to start listening to Catholic criticisms, not resenting them. It is a risky strategy, but if Mr Robinson is really serious about attracting votes from across the community, that is the way to go.