Faced with clear evidence of the religious demographics of Northern Ireland moving inexorably towards a Catholic majority in a generation or less, some unionist commentators reply that such evidence takes no account of ‘Catholic unionists’.
Is there such a thing? Of course there are, to some extent – but is the number significant enough to actually influence the outcome of Northern Ireland’s ‘cradle wars’?
An examination of the elected representatives of the unionist parties reveals precisely none who can be identified as Catholic (by name, by background, by schooling, or by personal acknowledgement) – and Northern Ireland is a small place so such details about people would be quickly known. True, the UUP used to have an MLA, John Gorman, who is Catholic, but he is now an old man and out of politics. Another Catholic, Patricia Campbell, stood for election in North Antrim in 1998 for the UUP, but failed to get elected and has apparently left politics too.
At council level also it appears that no unionist councillor is a Catholic either by ‘community background’ or personal conviction.
So perhaps the mythical ‘Catholic unionists’ don’t stand for election, but merely vote? In this case, then, we should expect to see a unionist vote that is proportionately higher than the Protestant population. But, again, this cannot be found.
In the 2001 Census the Protestant proportion (by community background) was 53.1% (table s306). In the elections that followed that Census; the 2003 Assembly election, the 2004 European Parliament election, and the two elections in 2005 (Westminster and local councils), the unionist proportions of the vote were respectively: 52.6%, 48.6%, 51.9% and 50.5%. There is no evidence there of a ‘Catholic unionist’ vote – or if there is, it is counterbalanced by a ‘Protestant nationalist’ vote. In local elections where there is a direct contest between unionism and nationalism, the proportions going to the two blocks are almost identical to the proportions of the two religious groups.
Most reasonable observers accept that the unionist parties are largely (almost entirely) Protestant in their composition. The recent near-merger between the English Conservative Party and the UUP was partially motivated by the wish to “reach out to a wider audience of pro Union voters who have been disengaged from politics here for some time”. – this being UUP code for the mythical ‘pro-union Catholics’. One very clear test of this outreach to ‘Catholic unionists’ will come very quickly, when the joint UCUNF candidates for the 2010 Westminster election are selected. If there are no obvious Catholics it will be clear that the new ‘non-sectarian’ unionist project is simply the old project repackaged. Yet there are, so far, no known indigenous Catholic Conservatives or unionists. The recent defections from other parties to the Tories – Deirdre Nelson from the DUP and Ian Parsley from Alliance – are both Protestant. If they are to have a future in electoral politics this would leave less room for any Catholic unionists that the Tories may discover.
On the other side of the divide the same question can be asked – are there any Protestant nationalists? The evidence certainly points to a number: Harvey Bicker (Fianna Fail), Billy Leonard (Sinn Féin MLA), John Robb (New Ireland Group) and Eddie Espie (SDLP). During the past generation there have been others: Ivan Cooper (a founder of the SDLP), Ronnie Bunting (a member of the INLA, murdered by loyalists), and John Turnley (Irish Independence Party, also murdered by loyalists). The fate of Turnley, a purely political actor, was designed to discourage Protestants from openly supporting nationalism, and in this it probably succeeded. Nonetheless, despite the risks to their person safety from loyalists, more Protestants seem to be prepared to identify with nationalism than Catholics who identify with unionism.