Belfast Telegraph

Time will tell if DUP-Catholic Church 'alliance' is vote winner

Bishop Noel Treanor shares a joke with DUP MLA Paul Givan at Stormont this week
Bishop Noel Treanor shares a joke with DUP MLA Paul Givan at Stormont this week
Sir Malcolm Rifkind

By Liam Clarke

"I actually think there is an educated, conservative Catholic vote out there, which the DUP is probably best-placed to pick up... the doctrines of their Church largely coincide with the DUP. So conservative Protestantism and conservative Catholicism have an awful lot in common."

The words were those of Edwin Poots, quoted in Professor Jonathan Tonge's book on the DUP last year.

As the DUP casts around for a way to grow, it is hoping that socially conservative, observant Catholics may eventually swing behind it.

As Paul Givan, who met Bishop Noel Treanor this week, asked in the same book: "How can you vote for Sinn Fein and the SDLP if you are opposed to gay marriage? Sinn Fein, certainly; their stance on abortion wouldn't be in line with the Catholic Church."

Peter Robinson, who also met Bishop Treanor, has made the same point in several conference speeches. Can this really happen? Or is this the political equivalent of fool's gold?

The religious Right of the DUP is arguing that there is no need to worry if a few liberal Protestant voters drift away when you have the Opus Dei vote to play for. The reasoning goes that Catholics aren't so fussed about the border these days and there is room to appeal to them to vote on issues.

That sort of thinking could in time lead to a restructuring of politics here. It could help bring about a situation where religion is no longer the prime indicator of broad voting intention and every election is a mini-border referendum. If the DUP did manage to bring about unity on the religious Right, though, it might produce a growth of specifically liberal, or reforming, parties to combat it. That is how a political system changes.

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The Catholic Church will be wary about getting sucked into this agenda. There is the memory of anti-Catholic rhetoric from the DUP, for one thing, and the Church likes to let political parties dangle a bit anyway.

The Church may be pleased that, without committing itself too far, it has already got DUP backing for the continuation of St Mary's teacher training college as a special, segregated facility for Catholic schools. The DUP is also raising issues the Church cares about - gay marriage and abortion, for instance.

These are debates which the Church is losing in the rest of Europe. Will fear of defeat here, too, secure its blessing for Mr Givan? Could our old politics of "Protestants against Catholics" change to "Christians against the rest"?

That would be a strange outcome for those who assumed that cross-community co-operation would be a liberal thing.

There is a lot stacked against it. Most Irish Catholics nowadays take their religion a la carte. They are not the priest-ridden people of ancient unionist imagining, if they ever were.

In many traditionally Catholic countries like Spain or France abortion and gay marriage are permitted in spite of the Church's strong objections. It has also ceded control of education in many countries.

Here we see the beginning of a crack appearing already. The CEO of the Family Care Adoption Services - often thought of as the Catholic adoption agency, because of its legacy links to the Church - has now distanced itself.

She says it is not, as had been suggested, planning to close rather than place children with same-sex couples. She says it is willing in principle to place children with gay people, Protestants, or any other group entitled under law to apply.

What is happening is that a Church grant is being withdrawn and it is being asked to leave Church property.

So a holy alliance of fundamentalist Protestants and the Catholic hierarchy won't necessarily pull everyone in its wake.

The question is whether it can pull enough votes to help the DUP, or it is just a diversion.

MPs' sense of entitlement is still shocking

Peter Tapsell, the crusty old Tory Father of the House at Westminster, had a characteristically blunt take on second-jobbing for politicians.

"I fear that, if people in this House are not allowed a second job, that membership of it will soon be largely confined to the inheritors of substantial fortunes, or to those with rich spouses, or to obsessive crackpots and those who are otherwise unemployable," he told the House of Commons yesterday.

As an MP since 1966, he will know the mentality and, looking around the benches at Stormont, his cynical words may strike a sore spot here, too.

He is right - up to a point. Like police officers, politicians have to be reasonably well-paid because the opportunities for corruption are so great.

In the distant past, being an MP used to be a sort of hobby job. It was for those on a mission, or those being paid by powerful landowners, who often controlled parliamentary seats.

All that goes out the window when we hear Sir Malcolm Rifkind boast to undercover reporters that he had no job (in spite of his MP's salary), that he had plenty of free time, which he spent walking and reading, but that he would work for them for £5,000 an hour.

It showed the greed, arrogance and sense of entitlement which many of our senior politicians develop over years of living on public money.

Even more seriously, he was the chair of the Westminster intelligence and security committee and a former Foreign Secretary.

Shouldn't a man in that position be a little more reserved when a Chinese company he knows nothing about offers him money for old rope? Did it not cross his mind that foreign agents sometime compromise politicians with the promise of money?

Perhaps people like Sir Malcolm, who gets £145,992 from outside interests, the largest chunk, £85,992, from Unlilever, don't think it strange when people offer to throw some more money at them, too.

Perhaps when you live in this privileged bubble, £60,000-odd a year as an MP is really not worth thinking about and can't be considered a full-time job.

Although he had done nothing against the rules, it was perfectly right that he should be sacked in such circumstances.

A leader in a representative democracy must lead by example and to do so he must keep in touch with the concerns of ordinary people.

Jack Straw, the former Labour Foreign Secretary, also offered to work for the bogus Chinese company, but only after he stepped aside as an MP at the next election.

Belfast Telegraph


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