DUP shifts have implications for peace process
At least as many members of the DUP trust IRA groups trying to bomb Belfast city centre as trust Basil McCrea. That's among the conclusions of the Belfast Telegraph's opinion survey at the DUP conference. Delegates were not asked directly about the armed strugglers. But they were asked about Basil. And he scored nul points.
It also emerged that more delegates trusted Martin McGuinness (10%) than approved of the performance of the PSNI (8%), Martin was also more trusted than either Alasdair McDonnell, or Mike Nesbitt, languishing at 6%.
Four out of 10 delegates believed that children should be taught that it's possible the entire body of science is nonsense and that dinosaurs gambolled around the Glens of Antrim just a couple of thousand years ago.
(We might take a break to ponder the old conundrum of how dinosaurs missed the boat at the time of the Flood. A glance at creation.com, the website that keeps on giving, explains "The Bible says that two of every sort of land vertebrate ... were brought by God to the Ark. Therefore, dinosaurs were represented ... and those dinosaurs on the Ark were probably 'teenagers' ...")
It's easy to sneer. But if 40% of the members of our largest party believe this stuff, or something like it, it's a relevant political fact.
In relation to more earthly issues, the attitudes were markedly more progressive than the DUP is generally given credit for.
One in eight believed that, 'Abortion should be available to any woman who chooses it after being counselled on alternatives' – the exact position of Alliance for Choice and other pro-choice campaigners.
Almost two out of three (64%) believed that, 'Abortion should be available for rape, or incest, victims who choose it after counselling.' So, only one in three embraced the position of organisations such as Precious Life.
This should be kept firmly in mind the next time it's suggested at Stormont that the line of Health Minister Poots, the SDLP's Pat Ramsey and the rest of the all-party pro-life Assembly group represents a Northern Ireland consensus.
On the other hand, two-thirds of delegates supported continuance of the ban on sexually active gay men giving blood. To some extent, this may reflect acceptance of the 'health' argument as much as a belief that homosexuality is abominable – 28% opposed the ban.
There would seem, then, to have been significant evolution of DUP attitudes on 'moral' questions. This, in turn, has important implications for the 'peace process' and for the institutions established under the Belfast/Good Friday/St Andrews agreements. This factor goes almost unmentioned in conventional analyses, hopelessly enmeshed in Orange-Green politics.
One of the reasons for regular outbreaks of instability is that the DUP leadership didn't enter coalition with nationalists out of a desire for cross-community reconciliation, or for a settlement guaranteeing equal rights and esteem to nationalist and unionist identities. Thus the party's stumbling approach to flags, parades, the past and so on.
The main reason Rev Ian Paisley (below) led the DUP into coalition with Sinn Fein is that this was the only way to achieve devolution and, therefore, win a veto over policies to do with women's and gay rights, etc. This was spelt out at Westminster in October 2006, as talks at St Andrews proceeded amid encircling gloom.
The Civil Partnership Act was already on the Westminster statute book. It was proposed to extend it to the north. Rev Paisley rose: "Why is the Bill not going to be left until the Assembly is up and running again, so that the people of Northern Ireland can make the decision themselves?"
Minister Jacqui Smith shot back that this was because the Assembly wasn't operating. The remedy was in his own party's hands.
Last January, Peter Robinson repeated the point when addressing flag protesters. Rejecting their argument that it was power-sharing which had resulted in restriction on the Union flag flying at Belfast City Hall, he asked: "Are they content to have Westminster impose same-sex marriages and abortion on demand on our community? Such folly. Have they so quickly forgotten the decisions of direct rule in the past?"
The changing DUP attitudes to gay and women's rights was the most significant finding of the survey, as far as the future of the 'peace process' is concerned.
The fact that this was scarcely mentioned in mainstream coverage says more about mainstream commentary than about the DUP.