Inside the DUP: Unionism's dominant force bares its soul, but what does it do next?
The DUP is often painted as a secretive, highly disciplined and tightly controlled party run along strict centralist lines. Yet it has shown remarkable courage and transparency in opening itself to academic scrutiny in this way.
The DUP sees itself as more like a traditional family than a political machine. The leadership calls the shots, but it listens carefully to the membership to ensure unity. The party carries no passengers: members are few, but "of high quality".
Like Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan hero of its founder Ian Paisley, the modern DUP has now commissioned a portrait of itself, "warts and all". It wants to know the truth about itself, and that is a good place to start in politics.
Anyone who reads the book will be stuck by the party's resilience and adaptability – how far it has managed to stretch its brand. After that it is natural to wonder if the process can continue, or whether the DUP needs to make fundamental changes to grow.
As Oxford University Press puts it, the DUP has developed "from a religion-dominated protest party to a pragmatic party of Government in Northern Ireland, the most popular in the region, with more votes, Assembly seats and MPs than any of its rivals."
Recent growth has come from cannibalising the UUP. The DUP appeared to lose the argument in 1998 when the Good Friday Agreement was passed in a referendum. As the authors note, most commentators wrote it off, assuming the UUP would benefit from its victory.
Instead, the Agreement was the beginning of an influx of members from the UUP, which now provides many of its backroom staff as well as high-profile political representatives like Jeffrey Donaldson and Arlene Foster, both possible future leaders.
The DUP also won the affection of the Orange Order, an organisation that had been the UUP's closest ally for most of the history of Northern Ireland. It now provides most of the DUP's hardest-working members and dominates the ranks of its elected representatives.
The problem for the DUP is that if it doesn't grow it will eventually slip back. There were hints that this may happen in the last election when the TUV, PUP and Ukip votes started to increase, as did support for the UUP and independent unionists. On its rise to dominance, the DUP swallowed a lot of seats held by independent protest candidates; now, as a party of Government, it sees the protest vote growing once more. The party doesn't seem to have a clear way of dealing with this, and perhaps it commissioned this study to help assess its options.
The DUP's traditional strengths are the very things that now appear to be putting a limit on its growth. Its growing links to the Orange Order put off both Catholics and moderate Protestant voters. The Free Presbyterian influence, which, unlike the Orange connection, is weakening, won't help attract such new voters either.
The old tactic of continuing to eat into the UUP may be hitting its limits as recruitment tails off and the old rival regroups.
The DUP will pore over these statistics. The immediate conclusion could be that it needs to do deals with the UUP in next year's Westminster elections. In the longer term, the party may have stretched its brand as far as it can without losing hardcore support.
However, the DUP has proven resourceful before, and it is in an immeasurably stronger position to face challenges now than at any time in its history.
Mixing religion and politics: key extracts from the book
- “Despite its tiny size, the Free Presbyterian Church remains the largest single denominational provider of DUP members. It is remarkable that so many members of a single, tiny church can populate a political party.”
- “The 1998-2006 period of intra-unionist turmoil heralded the arrival of a different type of DUP member, one angered by aspects of the Belfast Agreement and keen to find a superior substitute, but also one less concerned with — or desirous of — the deeply religious ethos which once pervaded the party they now joined. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, this diminished desire for a deeply religiously conditioned party does not necessarily signal the beginning of the end of religious influence within the DUP... clearly, the DUP’s Christian ethos and outlook remains."
- e “Free Presbyterians are not jihadists, wishing to crush unbelievers. Moreover, elected Free Presbyterian DUP members have always been conscious of their responsibilities to look after Roman Catholic constituents. Repudiation of their faith was not rejection of the individual. Yet Paisley’s position as leader of a church so hostile to Roman Catholicism bolstered Catholic perceptions that the DUP was not a party for them. Receptiveness to Roman Catholics as people amongst DUP elected representatives was overshadowed by the anti-Roman Church outlook of the church with which people closely associated the DUP.
- “Free Presbyterians are no longer an outright majority of the party’s elected wing within the Northern Ireland polity, and its former numerical overall dominance is unlikely to be recovered... the ending of Ian Paisley’s lengthy tenures as the head of both church and party heralded a new era and terminated the obvious link.”
- “Some members were frank in interviews in asserting that Orange Order membership meant more to them than their party membership as, despite scepticism over whether the Order held much contemporary influence, they felt particularly valued within its ranks. Historically, such claims might have come from UUP members.”
- “At the 2013 talks on parades, flags and the past, brokered by the US diplomat Richard Haass, the Reverend Mervyn Gibson, the Orange Order’s Chaplain, acted as a negotiator for the DUP... any replacement of the Parades Commission would need to be acceptable not merely to the DUP, but most crucially, to the Order’s representative on the DUP’s talks team.”
What they said... Quotes from inside the party
Male Ballymoney councillor
“The Free (Presbyterian) Church played too big a role within the party. The DUP was known as the Free Church . . . that was bad for the party. I’m a great lover of the Doctor (Paisley), but I think that the (current) leader isn’t a member of the (Free Presbyterian) Church is a big asset to the party. The Doc in North Antrim is a legend, but it’s good to get away from that within the more liberal Northern Ireland.”
Female non-Free Presbyterian DUP councillor in Ballymena
“People were asking me ‘have you left your church?’ . . . they thought it was only the Free Presbyterians who could represent the party.”
Female Co Down councillor
“I’m a Christian and that is why I am in the DUP. I’m not sure if I wasn’t a Christian that I would be in the DUP.”
“It’s not that Caleb has an over influence (sic); it’s just that the DUP has the same views as Caleb.”
Belfast city councillor Christopher Stalford
“You can’t expect them (elected representatives) to simply become irreligious or to leave their personal views to one side because they put their name on a ballot paper, because they are elected.”
“There is a lot of watering down and liberalisation of some members which will impact the party. We can be a broad church, but we cannot take our eyes off the Christian values.’’
Senior elected party representative
“My son is married to a Roman Catholic. Do I love him any less? No. I had to go on that journey, an acceptance of how I was going to deal with this. They love each other and that is all that matters.”
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