The Robinson strategy to widen DUP appeal

Peter Robinson accepts the applause following his speech at the DUP conference on Saturday Image copyright PA
Image caption Peter Robinson accepts the applause following his speech at the DUP conference on Saturday

For a second year in a row, the DUP leader has pointed his party in a centrist direction, talking up Catholic support for the UK and seeking "to reach out to those with whom we would not traditionally have been associated."

But while Peter Robinson told delegates at his annual conference at La Mon Hotel that he's ready to abandon "out-dated dogmas", his party faithful aren't abandoning their old flag waving traditions.

Their leader took to the stage amidst a sea of Union and Ulster flags, not necessarily the image designed to appeal to a Catholic unionist considering putting his or her toe in the DUP waters.

So what's the Robinson strategy all about?

In the short term it seems more about convincing moderate Protestant opinion that the DUP has changed its old, hardline ways.

In this sense it appears connected with the party's struggles in greater Belfast with the Alliance party.

The cross-community Alliance appears a more likely beneficiary of pro-status quo Catholic votes than the DUP.

It's even more likely such voters might continue backing nationalist candidates, whilst not sharing their constitutional aspirations.

Yet another option, of course, is not voting at all.

'Thinnest sliver'

Mr Robinson may be right to point out that some Catholics (think of the pro-grammar school lobby) may feel disenfranchised by the "left and far left" policies of the SDLP and Sinn Fein.

However, it will be an uphill struggle for the DUP to attract any more than the thinnest sliver of this electorate, especially when they continue to seek political advantage in bashing the Parades Commission or pledging support for a 365 days a year flag outside Belfast City Hall.

Over on the Detail website Steven McCaffery is quite right to point out that the DUP leader's speech should be seen in the context of 11 December release of the religious breakdown of the Northern Ireland 2011 census.

Ten years ago there was a lot of frenzied political activity in the run up to the release of the 2001 census breakdown, amidst predictions that the Protestant majority was dwindling fast.

In the event, the 43.76% share was lower than some nationalists had predicted and the politics of demography receded.

There has been much less of a build up to next month's figures.

But it's likely they will show a further narrowing of the gap, while school attendance figures suggest the census will find a Catholic majority within younger age groups.

Seen in that context, the Robinson strategy could be seen as a Dad's Army-style "don't panic" message to his own grassroots, making it clear to Protestants that, even if the demographic gap is closing, there's no reason to assume Northern Ireland's status within the UK is under threat.

Despite his avowed confidence on this score, the first minister remains opposed to testing the constitutional question by holding what he calls a "sterile and divisive" border poll.

With the Scottish independence referendum looming Sinn Fein will no doubt repeat their demands for the secretary of state to arrange such a poll.

But while they try to persuade pro-status quo Catholics to cross the political divide, unionists will resist setting in train what could, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, become a rolling process of border polls to be held on a seven yearly basis.