Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

DUP's fundamentalist tail still wagging the dog

United stand: Peter Robinson and Gerry Adams at the funeral of Constable Ronan Kerr.

DUP's fundamentalist tail still wagging the dog

The row over the Bible play in Newtownabbey is another sign that the political elite, particularly in the case of the DUP, does not accurately reflect the population it claims to represent.

A parallel exists in Sinn Fein, where a far larger proportion of MLAs and councillors were in the IRA during the Troubles than is the case with nationalist voters generally.

That probably helped secure the peace in the early years, but nowadays it can make accommodation more difficult on issues like the past.

That influence is, however, bound to decline as the Troubles generation gets older and younger people without that association are drawn into the party.

In the case of the DUP, it is the small, evangelical denominations and the loyal orders which are over-represented and which show no signs of fading away.

We can see it in the party's stance on issues like The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged), on which most DUP councillors and Paul Girvan, the MLA, were out of tune with public opinion.

In spite of wild talk about Christians in general being disrespected and discriminated against by the performance, the play is now selling out and, presumably, most of those who bought tickets were members of a mainstream Christian denomination.

Professor John Tonge, who has carried out a full survey of the DUP support base, recently revealed that the largest denomination among party members is still the Free Presbyterian Church. These are the party stalwarts, who select candidates and without whose support nothing can happen.

The denomination also commands the support of a high proportion of the party's elected representatives.

There are good historic reasons for this, but that doesn't mean that it can't cause political problems. When we look at the 2011 census, only 10,068 out of a total population of 1,810,863 are Free Presbyterians, or 0.6%. Even if we take the church's membership as a proportion of the 198,643 people who voted DUP in 2011, it is 5.1%.

Of course, there are other small denominations which share many of the Free Presbyterians' views and there are some members of the main Protestant denominations who do so, too.

Yet, when every allowance is made, it is hard to escape the conclusion that a sincere, but unrepresentative, group which believes they are on a mission from God, is attempting to set boundaries on issues of taste, sexual morality, gay rights and the public promotion of creationism. If they are successful, then it is bound to impact on DUP support in the wider population.

There are signs that this tiny section of population is trying to use its muscle against the very tactics which helped the DUP become the largest party.

For instance, in 2011 Peter Robinson, the DUP leader, won widespread support and built bridges by sitting in the congregation at the funeral of Ronan Kerr, a PSNI constable murdered by dissidents. There was no outcry at the time, but now the Evangelical Protestant society is speaking out against it.

This group is controlled mainly by members of small fundamentalist denominations, though there is one Presbyterian elder and one member of the Baptist Church on its council.

It was founded in 1946 to oppose the growth of ecumenism, Romanism and liberalism and believes the situation has gone downhill since then.

It is, in other words, fighting a losing battle against the grain of history and seeking to turn the clock back at least 70 years on its chosen issues.

Delivering to such groups is not the way to develop a political party which sets itself the ambitious aim of representing the whole community.

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