Belfast Telegraph

Former Stormont spin doctor on why there is much more to the DUP than meets the eye

The former Stormont spin doctor gives his analysis of the political upheaval at Westminster and Stormont, complete with his "DUP for Dummies" guide

By David Gordon

Who are the DUP? It's a question now reverberating around the drawing rooms of the English chattering classes. Let me be of some assistance.

I have been watching the party up close for decades. Like many journalists, I have had my fair share of bruising encounters - starting with run-ins in my time as a rookie reporter on the Larne Times. In one of my first days there, I got an earful from a DUP councillor about a report on wheelie bins that apparently proved we were out to destroy him.

While working for this newspaper, I got myself barred from Rev Ian Paisley's final press event as First Minister. I literally wrote the book, or at least one of the books (The Fall of the House of Paisley, still available on Kindle. Nice of you to ask).

And for a few short months, as joint press secretary to Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness, I saw the Duppers from the other side of the fence too.

So how would I sum up the party? Well, it's complicated. Thran, confrontational, quirky, socially conservative - all words that would be used in any "DUP for Dummies" introductory guide. There's been a strong tendency for some of their number to run off at the mouth and deliberately antagonise, given half a chance.

But street-smart pragmatism would have to feature prominently in the guide too. Otherwise, you couldn't explain the party's rise to its lofty position today.

The DUP started life as despised outsiders, one-man's fan club, a political extension of Paisley's hard-line Free Presbyterian Church - a denomination, it should be said, that comprises a very small proportion of Northern Ireland Protestants.

The DUP's ascent to centre stage was achieved through a combination of events, luck, political upheaval, strategy, low cunning, ruthless opportunism and pragmatism. It has mopped up a very large chunk of the UUP vote, and snapped up some of its rising stars along the way.

It has moved some distance from firebrand pulpit politics towards the centre ground.

The Free Presbyterian origins are clearly still evident, particularly at grassroots level. But that does not mean the social conservative agenda will be advanced through the tie-up with Tories.

Any deal will not be about gay marriage or abortion - anyone who thinks otherwise doesn't know the modern-day Conservative Party or, indeed, the DUP.

Journalists and the Twitterati have been busy compiling offensive anti-gay comments made by DUP politicians over the years. That's not surprising.

It's worth noting the dates on most, but not all, of them. Efforts would seem to have been made to get people to shut up. Maybe some lessons have been learned too. We could argue all day about the extent to which the DUP has changed. But too much ink has probably been spilled on all this - compared to some other pressing issues.

Like what the DUP will actually secure from the Tories. And how all this upheaval will play into the efforts to get an Executive up and running.

Devolution still looks like the only long-term game in town. And that will require the DUP and Sinn Fein to sit down and hammer out a deal. Don't ask me to define how long that long-term will be. I have no idea.

There are issues to be addressed about how a British government can be impartial here when it's being propped up by the DUP.

Similar questions will be raised in the event of Sinn Fein realising its aim of being in government in Dublin. It should also be noted that Sinn Fein long ago concluded that the Tories were not impartial.

One way of reducing London's role is to get devolution operating again. The DUP will surely be aware of the dangers of overplaying its current hand, and of getting too pleased with itself.

There are also clear risks in being tied in too closely with a London government overseeing unpopular cuts.

Fortunes can change very rapidly in the politics game these days. Ask Theresa May. Or Nicola Sturgeon. Or Arlene Foster.

Betting everything on the new Westminster scenario would be some gamble.

Sinn Fein may be right that it will all end in tears. The last Tory hook-up with unionists was the disastrous UCUNF marriage between David Cameron and the UUP.

Theresa May is clinging to office by her eyelids. The Brexit negotiations now look messy beyond words. But there are strong grounds for Conservative MPs wanting to avoid another general election any time soon.

A litany of past DUP quotes might redden some faces. But how many Tory MPs are going to side with Labour in a Commons vote of confidence?

No one has a clue how all this will play out, or how long it will all take.

In the meantime, don't expect the DUP to be too worried about all the vitriol cascading towards it from social media and elsewhere.

It's well used to that here. There is a strong strain of Millwall syndrome - "No one likes us, we don't care" - in the party and the unionist community in general.

The new-found interest in Northern Ireland from journalists and pundits is meanwhile unlikely to last, or to have too much impact in the real world.

Owen Jones, Paul Mason and Russell Brand are not going to raise an army, invade this place and change the laws.

The current DUP bashing on abortion and climate change has also been undermined somewhat by a poor grasp of facts.

The party has been solely blamed for abortion law here, and even for the fact that women are being prosecuted for using abortion pills bought online. (That's actually still against the law across the water, by the way.)

Rightly or wrongly, there is no appetite at Stormont for major liberalisation of abortion law.

This goes well beyond the DUP. SF opposes the extension of the 1967 Act. So, too, does the SDLP, Labour's sister party.

The DUP can also point out that Sammy Wilson's outbursts on climate change are not party policy. The DUP 2007 manifesto, for instance, said: "It is important that we in Northern Ireland not only look after our own environment but also play our part in global issues such as tackling climate change."

The DUP also signed up to a Stormont Programme for Government that said: "It is clear that climate change is one of the most serious problems facing the world."

The Northern Ireland gay marriage battle, meanwhile, is highly unlikely to be resolved at Westminster - unless there is a prolonged period of direct rule and no prospect of devolution returning. The DUP no longer has a Petition of Concern veto at the Assembly.

Here, as with so much else, all roads seemingly lead back up to Stormont.

Sooner or later, our politics and politicians here will have to trudge back up that hill.

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