N. Ireland in UK could rest on Catholic support: leader

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Northern Ireland's first minister said Saturday that the province's future in the UK could depend on Catholics, wary of the Republic of Ireland's economic woes, voting across the traditional divide.

Peter Robinson acknowledged that he might well be Northern Ireland's last Protestant first minister, in an interview with The Times newspaper.

The Protestant, Unionist community broadly favours the province remaining part of the United Kingdom while the Catholic, Nationalist community traditionally favours it becoming part of the Republic of Ireland.

The 2001 census recorded the Northern Irish population as 53.1 percent Proestant and 43.8 percent Catholic, with the 2011 census expected to show a narrowing of the gap.

The Times cited a recent national audit showing that when asked to state their religion, 54 percent of boys and 55 percent of girls described themselves as Catholic.

Figures out last month found that 49 percent of Northern Irish students at the province's universities were Catholics, while 35 percent were Protestants.

Robinson, 62, is the leader of the Protestant, conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Northern Ireland's biggest party.

Asked whether he could be Northern Ireland's last Unionist first minister, he said: "Yes, but the assumption behind your question is that the Catholic population will not vote for Unionist parties."

He said that following the Republic of Ireland's economic downturn, a majority of Nationalists wanted to maintain links with the United Kingdom.

"What is happening in the Irish Republic is not appetising (for Nationalists). I think the more stable our structure, the more peaceful Northern Ireland is, the more it works as part of the UK, then the more people will think, 'Why on earth would we change?'"

Northern Ireland endured three decades of sectarian bombings and shootings.

The violence largely ended with 1998 peace accords, which paved the way for a power-sharing administration in Belfast, although sporadic attacks continue.

Robinson's DUP shares power with Catholic socialists Sinn Fein. Three other smaller parties have a handful of ministries.

© 2011 AFP

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