Interesting times in the North at the moment as we have a number of matters all on the go at the moment.
First up, the North of Ireland’s 2011 census figures are to be released on December 11th I believe with the ever huge speculation over what surprises it shall have in store regarding the religious designations of the population. Some are speculating that their will be more people who self-identify as Catholics, more who do not identify as any specific religion and that there may also be a dip in those who self-identify as one of many Protestant denominations. Further, national designations are to be incorporated including Irish, British and the ever ambiguous, Northern Irish.
In the simple yet also complicated world of Northern politics religion is used as a proxy for what one’s position is regarding the constitutional future of the North. At the moment, the ever wonderful Bangor Dub and a whole host of other commentators have been going through the data released in relation to the demographic breakdown of every school in the North over at BD’s site. The conversation has also moved onto the census in general.
Second, we have the ongoing issue of Belfast City Council and the flying of the Union flag a top City Hall and two other council buildings for 365 days of the year. The SDLP and Sinn Fein have brought a motion to the Chamber to be voted on removing the flag, while the Alliance party are seemingly leading a motion of compromise whereby the flag is flown on designated days, much like with other government buildings. I have noted my own opinion on the matter previously and Fitzjames Horse has noted that while the more some things change over time, they more they stay the same. Unionist politicians are united (at last, unionist unity!!!) that this is an outrage and have organised a sham opinon poll (they have form on sham polls) showing how most people in Belfast are ok, sweet as a nut mate, with the flying of the union jack a top City Hall. Further, they have also done a number of mail drops highlighting this issue and how the Alliance Party are complicit in this outrage. BCC is voting on Monday evening (it’s Tuesday here in Brisbane) on the matter and a protest shall take place on Donegall Square South.
Finally, we have First Minister, Peter Robinson, at a party dinner with his claim that the DUP can entice more Catholics to vote for pro-union parties and that:
‘Some in unionism wonder will our pursuit of Catholic votes lead to an abandonment of sections of unionism. The simple answer is ‘no’. It is not an either or situation. Unionism is not a religion.‘
This and many of Robinson’s speeches have been classified under ‘Catholic Outreach‘ and a lot of cold water has been poured on these by better commentators than I here and here. This strategy seems very similar to one employed by political unionism back in the 60s when Terrence O’Neill tried the exact same thing, lots of pictures of him drinking tea or standing with smiling nuns. It didn’t work then, many are sceptical of it working now.
So, what have all of these things got in common, or do they have anything in common?
Well, as has been noted over on Bangor Dub’s site, you have an increase in the number of Catholic children in schools in the North. In crude terms, these kids when they grow up would normally vote for Nationalist parties, though of course that is never for certain. We are awaiting the results of the census and some are speculating Robinson and many others may not like what it has to say. Add into the mix that political unionism seems to be about to lose one of its pet loves (the flying of the union flag over City Hall, a council it notoriously ran before) and it is clear to see that Robinson now realises that a ‘protestant parliament for a protestant people‘ and all that ever entailed to the present day is resigned to history.
In fact, it means that unionism now has to do something it has never really had to do before; argue its case. The creation of the North as an unashamed sectarian headcount with an inbuilt ethno-religious majority of Protestant, Anglo-Scots who wanted to remain in the union and not be ruled from Dublin, whilst many also showed massive disdain and barely concealed hatred for Irish cultural expressions and those who would be their neighbours, has meant that any previous ‘Catholic Outreach‘ from someone like Robinson was seen as nonsense or a political ploy to wrestle away ‘liberal’ unionist voters who would vote elsewhere.
Now, you may see a thread that connects these three events and think that perhaps the First Minister is starting to feel the heat from the impending census results and his party needs to change their strategy as Catholics will soon be in the majority. Meanwhile, many of the trappings of the union are being hollowed out by Nats whenever they find the chance and his party and other unionist parties don’t exactly have form when it comes to treating ‘themmuns‘ with much respect. Sooo, Robinson has decided that his natural majority is shrinking and he needs to do something about this and fast, hence ‘Catholic Outreach‘.
This is not really a strategy born from a position of strength but a realisation that the numbers are stacked against him and he is required to do something he and his party have not done before, make the union attractive to large swathes of Catholics who would self-identify as Irish, a demographic they have traditionally done their utmost to antagonise.
Of course, if you work over on Slugger O’Toole, which I had hoped had turned a corner but I shall now refer to as Bullshit Mountain (apologies Jon Stewart!), supposedly it’s Nationalists that are going through something of a political crisis. I do laugh…