Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

Remedy for growing pains vital in a DUP with eyes on centre ground

The DUP has grown so big and so fast that there are bound to be differences of opinion within its ranks.

Our survey threw up a couple of potential fault lines. Nearly half, 42%, took the same line as Jim Wells and opposed abortion for rape and incest victims.

Yet earlier in the week Mr Robinson told me he thought they should be factors in granting an abortion even under the present law, especially where there was a suicide risk.

In another question, just under half of those surveyed agreed that Parades Commission determinations should be obeyed. Mr Robinson has stated unequivocally that, as long as the Parades Commission is in place, people have to accept its determinations.

These may be growing pains, snapshots of a party in rapid transition, or they may be symptoms of a lasting division that could cause trouble in the future. Mr Robinson has no rivals for leadership so the onus is on him to bring people with him and complete the party’s journey to the middle ground.

There is another issue on which he could easily push harder — integrated education. A large majority of delegates would like to see a single non-denominational education system and very few (16%) are opposed. Yet there are no plans for any increase in the integrated sector up to 2025 and in the round of school amalgamations so far announced none involve combining state and Catholic schools. Mr Robinson aims to grow the party by winning over more moderate non-DUP voters, eventually including Catholics. Yet the DUP continues to deliver on a fundamentalist agenda.

Alone in the UK, we have a gay blood donation ban and senior party figures have lobbied successfully for creationism in exhibits at the Giant’s Causeway. Opening hours for licensed premises are restrictive, there are plans to tighten laws on prostitution, the abortion legislation is to be enforced more strictly, there has been aid for the Orange Order and same sex marriage won’t be extended here.

Some of these issues are supported by wider sections of society than traditional DUP voters. However, taken collectively they show that the party is delivering for fundamentalism and could affect our reputation abroad. Creationism, for instance, attracted international publicity and restrictive opening hours were briefly a threat to last year’s MTV European Music Awards.

Mr Robinson may be on the way to attracting his first recruit from the Alliance Party. Adam Harbinson, a North Down councillor, is thinking it over. Party delegates were heartened by comments from Alex Kane, a former UUP director of communications, that his former party is imploding and could disappear within a decade. In a panel discussion at conference, Mr Kane also warned that not all disillusioned UUP voters would switch to the DUP, many may prefer to stay at home.

To sustain the DUP’s expansion, Mr Robinson may need to move faster in the direction of civic unionism. Growth isn’t simple, but most other party leaders would envy Mr Robinson such problems.

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