Fascinating insight into the DUP
The survey by Professor Jonathan Tonge of membership of the Democratic Unionist Party makes fascinating reading. Many people know that the DUP was formed by the Reverend Dr Ian Paisley in his heyday, but most will be surprised that Free Presbyterianism is still such a dominant faith among DUP members and elected representatives.
Equally revealing is the finding that the majority of DUP elected representatives are members of the Orange Order, as well as over a third of the party members.
Anyone interested in how politics works needs to understand the mechanisms of a party, and this study by Professor Tongue is as deep as it goes.
The DUP may have a small party with a membership that is estimated at little more than a thousand people. The size of this figure may surprise some people, but the members are disciplined and extremely active, and it shows.
This membership is not all of one hue, and Presbyterians of all kinds have a reputation for independent thinking. Significantly, however, the influence of the Free Presbyterian Church and the Orange Order is particularly evident in the higher levels of the party.
This is the strength of a party which is seeking unity of purpose and identity, and which is fighting to protect its core values.
This helps to create success, but once this has been achieved, it can create a problem. This is where the leader Peter Robinson finds his role particularly difficult. The party faithful is small in numbers, but many other people vote for it, and it is certain that they cannot all share the same values.
This is where Mr Robinson has a difficult trick to pull off. He needs to be a First Minister for all, while not offending the heartland of his own party.
For the most part he has done that skilfully, within a complex political context, but when he fails –as he has done recently with his initial comments on Islam, and also on the parading issue two summers ago – his support can decrease spectacularly.
Nevertheless Peter Robinson remains a formidable and determined leader who has survived political and personal crises which would have toppled many another man. The DUP has also survived a great deal, and whether people believe in its policies or not, it remains one of the most fascinating parties in these islands.