Left: St Patrick's Roman Catholic Cathedral, Armagh, Northern Ireland; right: Parliament Buildings at Stormont, Belfast, seat of the assembly. (Photos: Wikipedia)
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
Of course, culture wars loom large. And it is in these culture wars that the political divide becomes murkier.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
of people attended a rally in Belfast last month in support of
Christian bakers who are under fire from the Equality Commission.
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.”
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?”
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
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”.
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.
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.