Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

DUP can't afford to bare teeth at rest of unionist pack

Once top dog, Peter Robinson's party is no longer the strongest voice of unionism and must pass three challenges to regain ground, warns Alex Kane

Peter Robinson’s party needs to reach out to more voters
Peter Robinson’s party needs to reach out to more voters

On May 6, 2011, as the results rolled in from the Assembly and council elections, Peter Robinson must have felt like he was master of all he surveyed. The DUP had seen off challenges from the TUV and UUP at the European and General Elections in 2009/10 and now the party had increased its tally of MLAs and councillors.

More important, the DUP's total vote was greater than the combined vote of all the other unionist/pro-Union parties. The DUP was both the party of unionism and the undisputed voice of unionism.

Robinson, much more so than Ian Paisley, had led it to that position. He had weathered personal storms that would have broken other men, helped orchestrate the removal of Ian Paisley from the positions of party leader and First Minister, and then delivered the DUP's best ever election victories.

He was top dog and his party – and it really was his party now – was, or so he believed, going to be calling the political/electoral shots for a very long time.

So it's probably no surprise that he was prepared to give the nod of approval to The Democratic Unionist Party: From Protest To Power, a new history/academic survey.

There was nothing to fear and by the time it was published (the launch is tonight) there was every likelihood that the DUP's position would be even stronger. He didn't mind the inner workings of the party or the views of its key figures being known and he was quite happy for the transformation of the DUP from small, fundamentalist protest party to poll-topping broad-church primary vehicle of unionism to be charted.

Maybe he imagined that it would be one of those 'look-at-where-we-were-then-and-where-we-are-now' valedictory tomes: a glowing overview of his legacy, in other words.

But the DUP of May 2011 is not the same DUP of May 2014. For a start, it is no longer the undisputed, unchallenged voice of unionism. More unionists voted for other parties than for the DUP at the Euro and council elections. The UUP has steadied rather than continued to fall. The PUP and Ukip did better than expected, taking almost 35,000 votes between them. And, most worrying of all, the TUV has bounced back and become a force to reckon with again.

The claims that used to be made about stable government, strong institutions and a "good working relationship with Mr McGuinness" are made less often now and with absolutely no conviction.

A combination of the UUP/TUV/Ukip/Orange Order and senior figures within the DUP forced a humiliating U-turn on the Maze project last summer. There has been speculation – much of it fuelled by internal briefing against him – about his leadership. And it now looks like the DUP is the unionist party that really needs the electoral pacts and 'arrangements' in the run-up to the General and Assembly elections in 2015/16.

I don't think there's any immediate danger of the DUP being eclipsed by either the TUV or UUP, but there is a real danger of it slipping behind Sinn Fein in terms of both votes and seats in 2016 and of Sinn Fein taking the role of First Minister.

While the DUP may still be the biggest dog in the unionist pack, it is no longer the top dog: and Robinson is no longer master of all he surveys.

The party faces three challenges. First, how does it diminish its electoral rivals? Pacts won't help because they actually strengthen those rivals and almost certainly gift them seats and votes.

There is no point in trying to become more hardline because it will simply end up looking scared of the TUV. And all recent attempts to appeal to liberal unionism (both the UUP and NI21 have gone down that road) have ended in division and lost votes. Indeed, the UUP seems to have halted its decline precisely because it drifted from the liberal and back to their more 'traditional' position.

The second challenge is to reach out to that 45-50% of the pro-Union demography that doesn't vote. The problem is that nobody is really sure why they don't vote and, consequently, don't know what to do to attract them: or, more importantly, how to attract them without risking elements of your core vote.

The third challenge – which Robinson has touched upon – lies in reaching out to Catholic unionists. But given the views expressed in the book by significant elements of the DUP it seems very unlikely that there are many votes to be tapped into there. Even those who may be sympathetic to the DUP's stance on some social/moral issues will be put off by the party's view on Roman Catholicism and the strengthened links with the Orange Order.

The DUP's electoral slippage – combined with the lessening of Robinson's personal political clout – brings problems for all of unionism. The parties now need each other in a way that they didn't just three years ago. Robinson can't be too dismissive of Nesbitt and Allister, because he will need their support on some key issues. Yet, as is always the case with the DUP, it is at its most ruthless and effective when its back is to the wall.

It hasn't come this far just to lose it all after three years!

Follow Alex Kane on @AlexKane221b

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