Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Can the DUP still display leadership amid elections and parades?

Peter Robinson salutes the audience flanked by MPs William McCrea and Nigel Dodds

After a year of stress and tension in government, the DUP is out to broaden its appeal again.

The party was given that message by its leader, Peter Robinson, as it gathered on Saturday for its spring conference in the luxurious surroundings of Newcastle's Slieve Donard Hotel.

"The real test of the success and future prospects of a political party is whether its members spend their time looking for Lundies or seeking converts," he said. "I want to make sure that we in this party seek out converts not just to the DUP but also to unionism itself," he told delegates.

He also warned them that unionists could no longer rely on "demographic advantage", a euphemism for Protestants continuing to outnumber Catholics, "to preserve our position".

He pointed to the fact that, despite this loss "in recent years, poll after poll has confirmed that support for the constitutional status quo has never been higher across the community. This is the long-term guarantee of our position within the Union".

He argued that "in the longer term, elections will not just be about counting heads, but about winning arguments".

"The case for the Union is a powerful argument when one considers it on a political, social, cultural, historic or economic basis," he added. As he attempted to position the DUP as a broad church unionist organisation closer to the centre ground, he condemned other parties as splitters and extremists.

He strongly defended the DUP's position in government with Sinn Fein, warning that if the arrangement collapsed, it would be replaced by direct rule, with strong influence from Dublin.

This pragmatic approach was supported in election literature. Diane Dodds, the Euro candidate, issued a campaign paper. It was all about issues such as community funding, regional aid and her impressive work record for farmers, fishermen and business. Her speech was the same and it was cheered to the rafters.

It is one thing wanting to reach out across the community to the middle ground, it is another doing so when the going gets tough. The coming elections will be held in the run-up to the marching season and that will be a test of the DUP's credentials.

Talk is one thing, but when there is tension and uncertainty, politicians can be tempted to articulate fear instead of hope.

It can motivate voters, but the test of the DUP's position as the leading party will be its ability to chart a way forward to calmer waters.

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