Belfast Telegraph

DUP's scope is widening, but to zoom in on Catholic voters waste of time

By Professor Jon Tonge

Where does the DUP go from here?

Regardless of whether one loves or loathes the survey findings, the DUP deserves credit for allowing academic outsiders to conduct a membership study.

Not for the DUP the famous Duke of Wellington maxim regarding its own members: "Don't know about the enemy but, by God, they frighten me."

The DUP is comfortable in its own skin and has an enthusiastic and highly active membership. The survey revealed a party that is changing, but change it must just to stand still electorally. Demographics are against the DUP given the rise of the Catholic population.

It will not remain top dog in Northern Ireland over Sinn Fein for much longer. The DUP has two options to increase support. The first is a pitch to conservative Catholics on the basis of shared positions on opposition to abortion and gay marriage.

The trouble with this is that conservative Catholicism is in decline and most Catholics will never vote DUP anyway. The second, potentially more fruitful approach, is to try and attract the 100,000 UUP voters who still hold their noses regarding the DUP.

The UUP is a dangerous, if slumbering, electoral beast. Middle-class Protestant abstention is high. If the UUP can reconnect with those non-voters the party could revive.

That broadening process is under way. Free Presbyterians will not be the largest denomination in the DUP for much longer. The party will begin to reflect more closely the broader Protestant population.

The ex-UUP contingent, a quarter of DUP membership, has brought brains and talent. It continues to flourish. Belatedly, the party is also taking steps to enhance roles for women – too few (at 27% of the membership) and too often invisible, with notable exceptions such as Arlene Foster.

However, the widening of the DUP brings its own problems. The influx of Orange Order brethren – more active than all other membership categories – places pressure on the leadership to deliver on Orange parade routes. The DUP cannot do that with the Parades Commission in existence.

Some 60% of DUP members want unfettered Orange marching rights – and it will surprise few that the data shows that the bulk of that 60% are in the Orange. Insecurities over parades, dissidents and policing remain.

Broadening the DUP brings some fears from traditionalist members of a major dilution of religious or moral principles.

This seems unlikely. Religious badges will be worn more lightly but members want (Christian) faith to underpin their party. What other party membership in the UK, if asked the extent to which faith and church should influence, would give a score of 7/10? So the DUP will continue to "do God" (Peter Robinson gave a 10/10 regarding faith), but God will not be a Free Presbyterian.

The question begged is whether this is a good time for the DUP leader – popular internally – (his rating at 8.8/10) to exit the stage. His party is in good health, but may have peaked electorally and it is unclear what would be the big wins over the next few years.

There may be one last temptation, even for a Peter Robinson no longer atWestminster.

If the Conservatives fall short of a majority next May David Cameron might come knocking at the DUP's door. Given that members favour Tories over Labour by seven to one, doing a deal ought not to be a problem.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool

Belfast Telegraph


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