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Arlene Foster needs to take risks if DUP is to stay top dog


First Minister of Northern Ireland Arlene Foster MLA Leader, Democratic Unionist Party.

First Minister of Northern Ireland Arlene Foster MLA Leader, Democratic Unionist Party.

UUP leader and First Minister David Trimble.   1998

UUP leader and First Minister David Trimble. 1998


First Minister of Northern Ireland Arlene Foster MLA Leader, Democratic Unionist Party.

The DUP celebrated its 45th birthday in September and, in 2021, the year in which Northern Ireland marks its centenary, it's a pretty safe bet that the DUP will be hosting a massive 'do' for its own half-century. That is understandable, given how far it has come since those early days of "small meetings in small halls" as it tried to build a party machine and voter base.

It began - although its roots were in the Protestant Unionist Party, the banner under which Ian Paisley won the Bannside by-election for the Stormont Parliament in April 1970; followed a few weeks later by winning North Antrim in the general election - as a protest party. A party that opposed the liberalism of 'Big House' unionism, opposed the secular trend within society generally and mainstream Protestantism particularly, and opposed the weakness of Westminster in dealing with the IRA. And, at the beginning, Paisley also leaned towards integration, rather than devolution.

The first poll outing, the 1973 district council elections, was poor. It won just 4% of the vote, way behind the UUP's 41% and also behind Alliance (fighting its first campaign) on almost 14%. A few weeks later, in elections to the new Assembly, it increased its vote to around 11%, running neck-and-neck with Vanguard, the new hardline unionist party formed by Bill Craig a few months earlier.

But, within a couple of years, following the UUP's internal row over the Sunningdale Agreement and Vanguard splitting over the issue of voluntary power-sharing with the SDLP, the DUP had put down solid roots as the only serious rival to the UUP.

And, with the exception of the Euro elections and a blip in the 1981 council elections (when the DUP shaded the UUP by a few hundred votes), things were to stay pretty much the same for the next 20 years or so.

The DUP held a fairly consistent share of the vote, but didn't look as if it would eclipse the UUP. That was probably to do with the fact that it remained a party of protest: Right-wing on political/moral/constitutional/security issues, but never really having to take the lead when it came to negotiations or policy-making. In other words, it allowed the UUP to make the running on most things, with Paisley usually lambasting it.

It was helped by the fact that, between 1979 and September 1995, the UUP was led by Jim Molyneaux, the self-confessed "quiet man" of local politics. Molyneaux was naturally cautious, over-reliant on his supposed good contacts and influence within the Conservative Party, and seemingly blind to the reality that his "special relationship" with Margaret Thatcher and John Major had delivered nothing for unionism.

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He was an easy target for the DUP. It took the UUP a long time to realize that Molyneaux, for all his likeability and common touch, was generally ignored by the British and Irish Governments. So, in 1995, he was unexpectedly replaced by David Trimble, whose supporters hoped he would be strong enough to outflank Paisley and generate a new debate within unionism.

The turning point for the DUP - in terms of escaping from the electoral manacles of being a perpetual protest party - came in June 1998. In the Assembly election (following the Good Friday Agreement referendum) it won 20 seats to the UUP's 28; but the combined anti-Agreement unionist tally was also 28. There were about four UUP MLAs who were, at best, lukewarm about the party's policy. The DUP had a simple choice to make: destroy the Assembly from within, or find a way of making it work, albeit with it in charge. It chose the latter option.

It knew that Trimble was under constant pressure from his own party executive and council, and it also knew that Sinn Fein wasn't going to shift to help him. So, it changed tack and began to talk of a "fair deal", a "better deal". And, by January 2004 - after an Assembly election in November in which it took 30 seats to the UUP's 27, followed by the defections of Jeffery Donaldson, Arlene Foster and Norah Beare - it was the lead party of unionism, with 33 to the UUP's 24.

The next turning-point was the decision to negotiate, sell and implement its own power-sharing deal with Sinn Fein. It took it almost four years - and lost it Jim Allister and a few councillors along the way. But the deal was done in May 2007. In the two Assembly elections since then it has consolidated its position as the majority voice of unionism and is now comfortably the largest party in Westminster, Stormont and local government.

The next turning-point will be its most challenging. One of the consequences of broadening your voter base - which is now more than 200,000 - and broadening the range of your elected representatives, is the need to address new demands. There are people now voting DUP who would never have thought they would vote DUP; and many of those people are professional, educated, middle-class and reasonably laid-back on some social/moral issues.

While I think it's true to say that a majority of them would oppose the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland, I think it's also true that many of them would be reasonably comfortable with legal changes to cover the issue of what is described as fatal foetal abnormality.

Similarly, while a considerable majority of DUP members and representatives would oppose same-sex marriage, I suspect that many of its new voters wouldn't have the same problem.

And, as has been seen with the reaction to its recent motion on HIV and a retrospective pardon for some homosexual offences, there were no signs of internal rebellion. Nor was there when Foster said she could greet the Pope.

Parties stay on top by increasing their vote, broadening their base, listening to what is happening in the undergrowth - particularly the young - and taking calculated risks. That's precisely how the DUP went from protest party to the key party of Government. It cannot simply ignore the societal changes happening all around it and nor can it hope to stop everything with a veto and petition of concern. It took a chance in 1998 and another one in 2007. What has it got to lose by another one between now and the run-up to 2021?

The United Kingdom is built upon equality of citizenship and, as the lead party of unionism, the DUP should not be afraid to reflect that reality. Put bluntly, why shouldn't a DUP unionist also be gay, pro-abortion, in certain circumstances, pro-same-sex marriage and relaxed on other moral issues?

A Northern Ireland seen as a place apart is not good for unionism and, in the long run, not good for the DUP. Ironically, it's the DUP that is best-placed to change Northern Ireland and prepare it for its second century.

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