Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Bible play: The theatre row women on very different wings of the DUP, but can the party accommodate both of them?

Deputy Mayor Dineen Walker

There was a time – and it wasn't all that long ago either – when a DUP representative would not have admitted: "I am not a practising Christian." Yet that's what councillor Dineen Walker, deputy mayor of Newtownabbey Borough Council, told this newspaper on Monday.

OK, she tempered it, albeit slightly, when she said that she did believe in God: but for the evangelical and Free Presbyterian core of the DUP there isn't, I suspect, a very big gap between atheism and not being a practising Christian. It took some courage for her to say what she said. It doesn't matter how many new supporters she picks up on Twitter or Facebook, the fact is that she remains answerable to her DUP association and selection committee. If they turn against her then she's probably toast.

Not one of her 11 DUP colleagues on Newtownabbey Council did, or will, support her stand over the banning of the play. The vast majority of those attending the play will not be natural DUP supporters, while the vast majority who want it banned will be. She has taken a huge political and electoral risk.

Councillor Audrey Ball has, on the other hand, probably done herself no harm at all with those voters who stuck with the DUP through thick and thin.

She (along with her husband and fellow councillor, Billy) is a loud, proud and unembarrassed evangelical Christian. She wanted the play banned. She was happy to use her membership of the council's artistic committee to promote banning it.

But the fundamentally differing opinions between Walker and Ball sum up the difficulty which the DUP will experience repeatedly as it grows.

Walker was elected to Newtownabbey Borough Council in 2001 – as an Ulster Unionist. But she defected to the DUP in 2004. She's exactly the sort of small 'u' unionist who would normally have supported or joined the 'more moderate' UUP rather than the 'religious' DUP. And she's probably fairly typical of the sort of UUP voter who drifted to what they saw as a better organised, better disciplined and tougher-on-Sinn Fein DUP since 1999.

Her council biography reveals as much about her home life as her political. She calls herself the mother of two grown-up daughters but poignantly adds that she lost a son, Stuart, aged eight in a road accident. The deputy mayor is a strong supporter of organ donation after her son's organs were donated to four people.

She represents the Macedon area of Newtownabbey, where she has lived all her life, and works as a care assistant.

Mother-of-four Ball, meanwhile, is a relative newcomer to the council. She was elected for the DUP in 2011 after being selected at the last minute. Apart from her council responsibilities, she has run a playgroup for more than 20 years – the Covenant Christian Playgroup in Hazelbank, Newtownabbey.

Looking at the two women councillors, it is clear if Peter Robinson is serious about the DUP being the natural and biggest home for pro-Union voters then he has to find a way of accommodating different wings with differing priorities.

In other words, the DUP has to become a very big tent or, dare I say it, a pretty broad church. It's what the UUP once claimed to be, and yet in being so broad, and bending over backwards to keep competing and contradicting factions together, it eventually imploded.

The DUP has two advantages: an unquenchable thirst for power in a way that the UUP doesn't, and it has no real challenge to it at this point.

Robinson moved quickly to limit any damage (it looks as though the DUP's Newtownabbey councillors were persuaded to opt for silence as the better part of valour at Monday's meeting) and the play is going ahead. Again, he's helped by the fact that most of the pro-play lobby doesn't vote DUP.

The DUP is not the party it was in 1998. It has moved from protest to government: and it enjoys being top dog. It has proved itself enormously flexible and remarkably resistant to fracture (the Paisley programmes will do no damage).

The real test, though, is whether the evangelical roots are prepared to be as flexible as those MPs, MLAs and councillors now enjoying the perks, power and profile that accompanied the party's 2007 power-sharing deal with Sinn Fein?