Peter Robinson, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and first minister of Northern Ireland, recently announced (go to the BBC article for June 25th) that his party would begin a new drive to attract Catholic members. When one considers that for decades the DUP was the political arm of the Free Presbyterian Church, with Ian Paisley in the role of both leader of the former and moderator (leader) of the latter, this is a major change. The Free Presbyterian Church was an independent fundamentalist evangelical Protestant denomination with its theology stuck in the 16th--17th century reformation era when Scotland changed from being largely Catholic to mainly Presbyterian. Paisley used to preach sermons condemning any ecumenical activity between Catholicism and Protestantism. His party newspaper specialized in scandalous and sexually-charged stories about the activities of nuns in Catholic convents and the activities of priests.
Robinson, however, did not belong to the FPC and represented the "secular" wing of the party along with Sammy Wilson that was based in East Belfast and had supporters in urban areas of Northern Ireland as opposed to the more rural supporters of the fundamentalist wing of the party. Paisley and the DUP represented the wing of unionism that was suspicious of all nationalists as an alien fifth column and that advocated their suppression rather than assimilation. This tradition was also well represented in the ranks of the former ruling Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).
Due to the IRA's failure to decommission its weapons in a timely fashion, IRA activities in Colombia and in Northern Ireland that violated the ceasefire, and Protestant ambivalence about power sharing with nationalists, the DUP replaced the UUP as the main unionist party between 2002 and 2005. The UUP was marginalized in the Westminster parliamentary election of 2010 and the Northern Ireland Assembly election of 2011. The Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), a DUP-splinter party representing traditional DUP thinking was left with only a single Assembly seat. So Protestant voters generally are left with a choice between three parties as relevant: the DUP, the UUP, and the non-sectarian Alliance Party--which does not define itself as unionist but supports Northern Ireland remaining a part of the United Kingdom as long as a majority of its citizens feel that way.
In the last year a number of prominent activists and candidates in the UUP have defected to both of the other two parties leaving the continued existence of the UUP as a viable party in doubt. The center ground in unionism is now being combated between the DUP and Alliance. Like Republicans who tout the non-racist credentials of the GOP in the hope of attracting white suburbanites rather than large numbers of blacks and Latinos, the DUP may be attempting to attract potential moderate unionist voters away from the UUP and Alliance by appearing more plaid and less orange (the traditional color of unionists after William of Orange).
Meanwhile the fight among Catholics is largely between Sinn Fein and the SDLP with the latter losing much more ground to the former than to Alliance. Thus the SDLP may attempt to appear more green by emphasizing its commitment to Irish unity rather than attempting to win over closet Catholic unionists.
A recent survey (go to the June 19th articles in the Belfast Telegraph and Irish News) showed a large majority of Northern Irish Catholics as supporting the province remaining a part of the United Kingdom rather than uniting with the Republic of Ireland to the south and west. This is the first time that a majority of Catholics have indicated a preference for the UK over the Republic. This is no doubt a reaction to the recent crash of the economy in Ireland and the discrediting of the main Irish nationalist parties in the Republic. But it is likely that most of these voters will continue to support Sinn Fein over the SDLP in the believe that Sinn Fein does a better job of protecting their rights (never mind the hundreds of Catholics that the IRA killed and thousands that it maimed during The Troubles).
Maybe the SDLP should go back to its roots as a party--implied in its name--that emphasized social democracy as well as Irish unity? The party probably cannot compete with Sinn Fein's unity credentials (its leaders went to prison and killed for their beliefs), but can compete in terms of delivering social policies based on social democracy rather than corporatism.
And maybe Alliance should think about starting a membership drive among Catholics not just in its traditional Greater Belfast heartland but also in areas like the Ulster Midlands and west of the Bann--the dividing line between nationalist Ulster and unionist Ulster. It might find that some voters starved of innovative policies for decades may prefer these to identity politics based on the border and past history.