Next month’s Northern Irish Assembly election will reveal whether Peter Robinson’s description of Northern Ireland’s segregated education system as ‘a benign form of apartheid’ (Belfast News Letter, 15 October 2010) has reaped political dividend. That particular inflammatory and provocative phrase may represent the barometer of this election. While it is far-fetched to suggest the DUP has moved to the left, the party’s increasingly cordial and respectable accommodation with both the Dublin government and Sinn Féin has altered the character of the party substantially. These were seeds sewn by Paisley and Ahern at the site of the Boyne, but Robinson has struck out even more starkly with his pronouncements on education and ushered the DUP into the hitherto unchartered political waters of the centre ground.
Robinson was known prior to his 2008 accession to favour a kind of super-Unionist Party which would squeeze the nationalist parties into the margins – something that could be achieved by a proposed merger between Unionism’s main political parties. More naturally intelligent than his redoubtable predecessor, whose shadow he has only just escaped, few would have doubted him to pull it off. But he continues to deal with Unionism scattered – Paisley always sought to blast holes in the Unionist establishment and three years ago Robinson emerged from the ramparts to bridge the gaps. His immediate problem is two-fold: David McKittrick noted from the last census in 2001 that Northern Ireland’s Protestant community has ‘plunged to a record low’ of 53% (The Independent, 19 December 2002). The findings of the current census are likely to highlight a further drop.
But while the prospect of a majority Catholic voting bloc is well off at 40%, the problem for Robinson becomes more acute when the core constituency he represents is not churning out new voters – the reverse of Sinn Féin’s ability to mobilise the young and those who have never voted before. Furthermore, aside from the education crisis afflicting working class areas (Belfast Telegraph, 24 March 2011), unlike their Catholic counterparts, young Northern Irish Protestants who do undertake higher education tend to cross the water and – more importantly – not come back. Robinson has calculated that young Protestant voters in both working and middle class areas – including the 150,000 Church-going Protestants who did not register a vote at the last Westminster election (Tribune, 21 February 2011) – are out of his reach for now. Generally he continues to battle massive voter apathy in his own community.
But then came, in a move reminiscent of the Robinson of old, the comments on integrated schooling. It is quite possible that on some merit-good level Robinson was speaking earnestly, morally even. But the move also works on a number of political levels, extending an olive branch to Alliance Party waverers as well as the progressive wing of the Ulster Unionist Party firmly disillusioned by the pact with the British Conservatives. Simultaneously the traditionalists and hardliners in his party were left glowing by the furore emanating from the Catholic Church, which is seen as the main upholder of divided schooling – it was a win-win strike. Robinson has rediscovered his confidence and appetite for the bold political gesture. As one critic particularly quick out of the blocks observed: ‘If Peter Robinson wants an open, honest and inclusive debate on the future of education in Northern Ireland then why would he choose a platform at the installation of a DUP mayor in Castlereagh to launch this?’ (Belfast News Letter, 18 October 2010).
May’s election could also signal the beginning of the end for the Ulster Unionists, who have already suffered liberal fractures to Alliance (themselves expected to make quiet progress). Relations between the DUP and UUP were damaged beyond repair by the latter’s moves towards a more explicit partnership with the Tories, an alliance which did not regain David Trimble’s old Party lost votes in working class areas.
The signs are good for Robinson. He has time to build and an organisational machine that gives Sinn Féin a run for their money for the best-oiled of the local parties. Based on opinion polls the DUP is expected to retain virtually all its seats and indeed make further gains, particularly outside Belfast. Many beyond Unionism’s traditional support feel he weathered the marital storm of January 2010 manfully, while his sudden conversion to integrated education was broadly welcomed – as intended – from across the political spectrum. And while it would be a mistake to suggest the DUP has completely lanced the boil of Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice – Allister himself is likely to take a seat in North Antrim alongside another potentially in Lagan Valley – the TUV has tailed off from the impact it was making two years ago when Allister polled a whopping 70,000 first-preferences in the European Parliament Election knocking the DUP off the pinnacle of a poll they topped for over a quarter of a century. The TUV has not built on this momentum, Robinson again credited with checking the threat.
Meanwhile the PUP is in serious danger of missing out on the East Belfast seat it won in the last election, with its capable former leader Dawn Purvis – now running as an independent – competing for the same territory. The effect of this highly symbolic battle may just be to split the vote and hand another seat to the DUP. The PUP leader Brian Ervine denies this, claiming a DUP seat is guaranteed anyway and so the field is open for an alternative (Interview with the author, 28 January 2011), but given the transfer system it remains a distinct possibility. Otherwise, despite putting on a brave face, the party has no money and is widely regarded as being on its last legs.
One final point: fissures and tension within Unionism often serves to fortify the Unionist bloc and eventually strengthen it, whereas such divisions invariably weaken and sap its nationalist equivalent. Of course it is the majority political alignment but what appears healthy and salubrious difference of opinion among Unionists seems self-destructive and unwholesome among Irish nationalists. Despite tried and trusted doomsday prophesies in Unionist heartlands at the prospect of Sinn Féin as the largest party, the 2011 election is likely to consolidate the DUP as the top dogs at Stormont.
Connal Parr is presently writing a PhD on Protestant working class politics and culture at Queens University, Belfast.