When British voters go to the polls on May 6 to choose a new government, the 18 seats decided by citizens of Northern Ireland may prove crucial in helping either the Conservative or Labour parties to form a coalition. Electorally, the region usually splits down a predictable line: members of the Protestant community vote for parties that want to remain part of the United Kingdom, Catholics vote for parties that want the reunification of Ireland, with the region again becoming part of a united Ireland.
However, there are tentative signs that this might be changing, at least for some Catholics, and issues of faith and morals may be becoming more important than what is traditionally called the “national question.”
A contentious history
Following the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921), the peace treaty granted independence to the 26 southern counties of Ireland. The six counties in the northeast, where Protestants were in the majority, would remain part of the United Kingdom. Those same Protestants – many of whom had arrived during England’s 16th and 17th century colonization of Ireland – wanted to remain an integral part of the United Kingdom, much to the chagrin of Catholic community, which found itself cut off from the rest of the Irish people in the nascent state that became known as Northern Ireland.
From the outset, Northern Ireland was a self-consciously Protestant state. Catholics suffered discrimination. James Craig, the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, summed up the mood when he proclaimed: “all I boast of is that we are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State”.
Tensions boiled over in the 1960s as the increasingly assertive Catholic community demanded equal civil and political rights. Things turned violent when the government used the security forces to repress the civil rights movement. 1969 marked the beginning of what became known as “the Troubles.” As tensions simmered, Protestant mobs had burned Catholic homes. Perturbed by the unwillingness or inability of the region’s lawmakers to protect the Catholic minority, the British government directly intervened and put troops on the ground. The Northern Ireland parliament was disbanded and direct rule was imposed from London.
The arrival of the British troops marked the beginning of a fresh conflict as members of the mainly-Catholic paramilitary Irish Republican Army (IRA) armed themselves and began a terrorist campaign against the British. In turn, Protestant extremists formed rival terrorist organizations that targeted the Catholic community.
During almost 30 years of conflict, more than 3,600 people – many of them civilians – were killed. Hostilities came to an end following the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement peace accord. The deal obliged all sides to lay down arms and pursue their political goals by exclusively peaceful means.
While tensions have emerged and some small factions opposed to peace have tried to derail the deal, the accord has held and the region is now governed by a cross-community power-sharing executive. All contentious decisions must receive the support of a majority of law-makers representative of both the Protestant and Catholic communities.
The region has prospered as a result of what is now called the “peace process” and a so-called “peace dividend” has brought fresh opportunities and economic growth.
Changing political and social challenges
With the debate about whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom or part of a reunified Ireland effectively on the long finger, politicians are now facing the same political debates as their counterparts elsewhere.
Of course, culture wars loom large. And it is in these culture wars that the political divide becomes murkier.
Traditionally, Catholics voted for the moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and the more hardline Sinn Féin party. The SDLP – despite the socialist-sounding name – has tended towards social conservatism and has been vehemently opposed to the introduction of abortion. Sinn Féin, on the other hand, supports the introduction of abortion.
In the past most Catholics voted for the SDLP and Sinn Féin based on little more than the parties support for Irish unity. However, social issues are becoming more and more important. On the issue of same-sex marriage, for example, both parties that draw their support from Catholics campaign in favour of redefining marriage.
The two main parties supportive of continued ties with Britain, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), have traditionally relied on the Protestant community for voters. The DUP, in particular, was hated by large sections of the Catholic community due to the firebrand rhetoric of former leader Ian Paisley, who infamously described Catholics as “vermin”.
Recently, however, the DUP in particular has been on a charm offensive with Catholics. The party and the Catholic Church are at one on the issues of same-sex marriage and abortion. Catholic bishops recently met with senior figures in the party in a bid to have a so-called “conscience clause” passed into law protecting religious freedom.
Surprising alliances, shifting allegiances
Edwin Poots, a senior member of the DUP, thinks his party has more to offer Catholics than they might at first think.
“I actually think there is an educated, conservative Catholic vote out there, which the DUP is probably best placed to pick up,” he explained. “They want to ensure their kids get a good education, they are supportive of the doctrines of their Church.”
“The doctrines of their Church largely coincide with the DUP. So conservative Protestantism and conservative Catholicism have an awful lot in common,” according to Mr Poots.
Paul Givan, the DUP chair of the Northern Ireland Assembly justice committee, takes the same view. “How can you vote for Sinn Féin and the SDLP if you are opposed to gay marriage?” he asked. “Sinn Féin certainly, their stance on abortion wouldn’t be in line with the Catholic Church,” he said.
Matters are complicated by the fact that the words Catholic/Nationalist and Protestant/Unionist have traditionally been interchangeable. Finding a Catholic Unionist or a Protestant Nationalist was like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. But is that shifting too?
Fr Eugene O’Neill, a priest based in the east of Northern Ireland believes so.
“I’m 45 — for my generation of priests and everyone below us, the national question is irrelevant; literally irrelevant. No one is interested in discussing that,” insists Fr O’Neill.
Fr O’Neill says many Catholics are “rethinking their nationalism” and wondering whether “as Catholics they necessarily had to be nationalist”.
Fr Owen Gorman ministers in the southwest of Northern Ireland. He believes that some Catholics have already started switching allegiance away from their traditional political home in favor of more conservative unionist parties.
He believes that Catholics “whose faith informs their voting” are now less likely to vote for Sinn Féin “because Sinn Féin favours legislating for gay marriage and supports the availability of abortion in certain circumstances” (e.g. in cases of rape, incest, or the threat of suicide).
“While Sinn Féin support remains high in the Catholic community, they do not, however, have the support of Catholics who are committed to the cause of life and marriage,” says Fr Gorman.
According to Fr Gorman: “Catholics understand, therefore, that a vote for Sinn Féin is a vote for the weakening of the institution of marriage and the right to life for all the unborn.”
Catholics “who uphold marriage” are beginning to look toward the DUP because it “promotes the biblical understanding of marriage as between one man and one woman,” he said.
Liam Clarke, political editor of the Belfast Telegraph, says it’s too soon to say whether or not Catholics shifting their votes is a major factor.
“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,” according to Mr Clarke.
However, he believes that the Church will be cautious. “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…the DUP is also raising issues the Church cares about — gay marriage and abortion, for instance,” according to Mr Clarke.
Fr Tim Bartlett, Director of Public Affairs for the Down & Connor Diocese, insists that the Church will never tell people how to vote; but it does urge the faithful to assess the parties’ stance on moral matters.
For Catholics, he adds, the issues of abortion and gay marriage might now be “of a higher order” than the old quarrel over flags, which has been “parked” by the peace process.
Conscience clause is a common cause
A row over a cake has also proven a rallying call that both the DUP and the Catholic Church have found common cause.
Thousands of people attended a rally in Belfast last month in support of Christian bakers who are under fire from the Equality Commission.
Ashers, which has six shops employing 62 people, is being prosecuted for refusing to bake a cake with a slogan stating, “Support Gay Marriage”. It was also to feature the “Sesame Street” puppets Bert and Ernie with their arms around one another.
The case had led to calls for a conscience clause which would prevent civil authorities from forcing people to act against their consciences by providing goods and services in support of things they disagree with.
Both the SDLP and Sinn Féin, the main Catholic parties, are hostile to such a conscience clause and say they will act to veto it.
It was to the DUP that the Catholic Church turned to on the issue. Bishop Noel Treanor led a delegation to the Northern Ireland Assembly, where he met the DUP First Minister Peter Robinson.
Bishop Treanor said: “as part of the democratic process, we are glad to take the opportunity to discuss with our legislators, in a calm and respectful manner, how to find a more just and reasonable accommodation for religious belief when conflicts between goods and services legislation and freedom of conscience arise.”
“It is important that our politicians accept there is a real problem here that needs to be addressed. Our laws as they stand are having an unjust and disproportionate impact on those of religious faith. It is important that they don’t just ignore the situation but seek ways of addressing it and of giving greater recognition to freedom of conscience and religion as a fundamental human right and a cornerstone of a diverse and pluralist society,” Bishop Treanor said.
The bishop went on to pointedly state “it is as if we have swapped one form of discrimination for another! Is it just to have a situation where one group of people are told ‘you are out’ of a particular business or ‘you need not apply’ for a particular job or that ‘you may not apply for public funds’, simply because they hold the perfectly rational belief that marriage is between a woman and a man and that sexual relationships are reserved in their dignity and purpose for this form of married relationship?”
“The truth is that such prejudice and discrimination against any other category of people in our society would not be tolerated and public representatives have a responsibility to ensure that discrimination against those with perfectly rational religious views will not be tolerated either,” according to Bishop Treanor.
One stumbling block
There is a major stumbling block which will prevent many Catholics from voting for the DUP. The party is vehemently opposed to state funding of Catholic schools, something the minority community in Northern Ireland has taken for granted.
DUP leader Peter Robinson recently described the educational system as a benign but damaging “form of apartheid”.
“I don’t in any way object to churches providing and funding schools for those who choose to use them. What I do object to is the state providing and funding Church schools,” he said.
His comments drew a sharp rebuke from Bishop Donal McKeown. “It is worth pointing out that parents who choose faith-based schools for their children pay taxes toward the provision of that education.”
“The Catholic Church has also contributed substantial funding and resources for the provision of Catholic schools over generations, and this has ultimately saved the taxpayer money,” Bishop McKeown said.
Sinn Féin Assembly member John O’Dowd said Mr Robinson’s comments were “little more than a thinly disguised sectarian attack on Catholic education, parents and children”. He said the DUP sought to have “all our children educated in the image of a Protestant state for a Protestant people”.
The SDLP’s Margaret Ritchie dismissed Mr Robinson’s intervention as “an old-fashioned political sideswipe at Catholic schools”.
“Blaming Catholics for the division is shameful and totally the wrong place to start,” she added.
So, Catholics who take their faith seriously when it comes to voting certainly won’t view a shift to the DUP through rose-tinted glasses. They might not start voting for the likes of the DUP just yet, but the fact that this option is even being talked about shows how many Catholics feel the nationalist parties in Northern Ireland are alienating some of their traditional Catholic voter-base.