Some 40% of DUP activists believe that creationism should be taught in science classes, a Belfast Telegraph survey has found.
The survey, carried out at the DUP's annual conference, shows a party where the religious right still exercises more influence than in the general population, but where opinion may be broadening.
We surveyed 50 party members, out of just under 300, at the first day of conference at La Mon Hotel on the outskirts of Belfast.
Creationism is the belief that the world, animals and plants were created "by a supernatural being less than 10,000 years ago".
Mainstream science holds that the earth is four and a half billion years old and that life evolved from one-celled organisms.
Some 50% of DUP respondents believed creationism shouldn't be taught in science class, with 10% not knowing and 40% believing it should be there as well as, or instead of, mainstream science.
This may represent a softening of support for controversial creationism within DUP ranks.
On abortion, a subject which also engages religious feelings, 34% regarded it as murder. Asked if abortion should be permitted after counselling, 12% believed a termination should be available to women who wanted one, the most permissive possible position, which was opposed by 78%.
Clear majorities wanted abortion available in special circumstances such as rape or incest (64%), to save the life of the mother (90%), or where the foetus is unlikely to survive birth (58%).
Opinion among DUP delegates was in line with that of delegates at the SDLP's conference.
Edwin Poots, the DUP Health Minister, had the support of 66% for his controversial lifetime ban on sexually active gay men giving blood. The ban was opposed by 28% of DUP delegates with the remaining 6% not giving an opinion.
On more directly political issues none of those surveyed felt recommendations from the Haass process should be accepted in full – 90% felt they should simply be a basis for further discussion.
The DUP currently has one Euro MP and is deciding whether to run a second against Jim Nicholson of the UUP – 56% supported the idea, 24% opposed it and the rest had no opinion.
Peter Robinson, the party leader, received a very healthy approval rating of +92 when delegates were asked to score him. Only 2% felt he had done badly. On the same measure the PSNI scored a worrying low +8.
Delegates were also asked which of a range of rival party leaders and public figures they trusted.
Nobody on the list was trusted by the majority but Basil McCrea of NI21 was trusted by none at all. In contrast Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein was trusted by 10%, with a couple saying he was the only one they trusted; David Ford of Alliance by 12%; Mike Nesbitt of the UUP was neck-and-neck with Dr Alasdair McDonnell of the SDLP on 6%; and Jim Allister of the TUV fared best with 18%.
Non-party figures were seen as more trustworthy.
Chief Constable Matt Baggott had the confidence of 40%, just ahead of Secretary of State Theresa Villiers, on 36%.
Prospect of fielding second candidate for Europe poses tough questions
The immediate political dilemma for the DUP is whether it should try to finish off the UUP by running two candidates in the European elections or whether it should keep the smaller party on life support.
It requires a short-term solution – the election is next May and a decision will be made in January – but it raises fundamental issues about the party's identity and future.
First, the practicalities. Party number crunchers are looking at the feasibility of ripping the UUP out by the roots. The case in favour is seductive, and they take great comfort from the recent Belfast Telegraph LucidTalk poll which showed the UUP with 10.8% support compared to nearly 30% for the DUP.
"If we can get two candidates with a good geographic spread and manage the vote to keep each of them around 15%, it is just a matter of waiting for Jim Nicholson (the UUP sitting candidate) to drop out," one strategist said. Names are already under consideration, mainly figures from the religious wing of the party. David McIlveen is a favourite, followed by Jonathan Bell, the junior minister, with Jim Wells another possibility.
Getting one of them into Europe alongside Diane Dodds would, it is reckoned, spell swift and terminal decline for the UUP. The once dominant party would then have no MP, no MEPs and, because it depends on European allowances, very little money either.
As the meltdown commenced the DUP could hope to pick off members and support.
In our survey, 56% of DUP delegates favoured two candidates and in his speech Peter Robinson made the case for it. He also heaped praise on Danny Kennedy, the UUP's sole minister at Stormont. There is a clearly a welcome on offer if Mr Kennedy (below) should wish to jump ship to the DUP .
However, fundamentally there is a question about how far and how thinly the DUP's brand can be spread without starting to lose support.
Some fear that broadening the DUP political base could cause difficulties. At conference, one senior DUP figure on the religious right of the party said: "It is tempting to try to destroy the Ulster Unionists." But he added: "Is it really in our interests if we succeed? The UUP is no real threat to us and it is possible to work with them."
He reasoned that there were unionists who would never vote DUP whatever happened and that damaging the UUP further might create an opportunity for some new force.
The DUP is in a powerful position, and it will think long and hard about how it uses it.