Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: Does DUP want to be Direct Rule or Devolutionist Unionist Party?

By Jon Tonge

The Divided Unionist Party? Even the most ardent critics of the DUP would concede that the party has been very good at concealing internal divisions in the past.

But events over the past fortnight indicate significant tensions between the DUP's ardent devolutionists - MLAs who are anxious to get the Stormont show back up and running - and the Westminster contingent, the all-powerful DUP 10.

Naturally, the DUP will deny this - that's what all sensible parties do - but the evidence has grown.

The draft proposals of a three-in-one language bill and possible concessions on legacy issues reflect these divisions.

For MLAs, such as Edwin Poots, the draft (non) agreement, taking forward Irish Language measures - but only as part of a 'buy one, get two free' package, was a good piece of work, as Mr Poots publicly declared on the BBC's Spotlight programme.

Meanwhile, some within the DUP were denying the existence of draft proposals even as - courtesy of journalists Brian Rowan and Eamonn Mallie - they were about to appear.

The denials were curious.

Senior DUP figures had worked on the documents for weeks - and they were at an advanced stage in terms of dealing with the 'other side'.

One Sinn Fein MLA even commented privately last week that he was "sick of reading them".

Aware of internal unease, Arlene Foster declared that her party "weren't contemplating bringing in an Irish Language Act". In terms of a standalone measure, or one containing this specific title, this is true.

Yet the proposals clearly formed the basis of three interlinked acts, one of which was dedicated to the Irish language. As an equivalent, I might not be contemplating a cloudy day tomorrow - just one that is sunless.

Unquestionably, the DUP draft proposals were a serious effort to break the deadlock.

MLAs might have time on their hands at present but they're unlikely to spend it writing documents bringing proposals that they aren't really contemplating.

By the end of this week Sinn Fein, via Gerry Kelly, was also claiming a side deal with the British government on legacy issues - a devolution restoration carrot designed to enrage the DUP's Westminster team, Jeffrey Donaldson denying all knowledge of such an arrangement.

For 28 DUP MLAs, understandably anxious over their livelihoods, offering significant concessions to Sinn Fein makes sense. Stormont restored, salaries paid and the party leader back with a local power base.

For other sections of the DUP, there may be greater reluctance.

And given that only one-in-10 DUP voters backs an Irish Language Act, there are hardly strong electoral incentives for change.

Direct rule has its own risks for the DUP, of course - same-sex marriage legislation, for example - but some within the DUP might not be too heartbroken if Westminster enforces change with the party still showing fidelity to its own views.

And a Conservative government beholden to the DUP and not trying to restore devolution is less likely to offer Sinn Fein much on legacy issues.

Once upon a time, DUP internal rivalries existed mainly between Free Presbyterian religious fundamentalists and those of a milder Protestant dispensation.

And they didn't really matter anyway. The DUP was a ruthlessly top-down entity and it was a million miles from any power - all opposition and bombast.

The DUP's election successes changed all that and the party now has tough decisions to make over how and where to consolidate its power.

How much can be conceded to restore devolution? Given the current favourable position at Westminster, does devolution truly matter?

All within the DUP recognise that the current favourable arithmetic at Westminster will not last forever.

What exercises the party is whether a short-term period of direct rule - yielding nothing - is better than longer-term drip, drip devolutionary concessions to 'crocodiles'.

Nigel Dodds said a few years ago that the DUP cannot be led from Westminster any more. Yet as power has ebbed from Belfast since last year, can it be satisfactorily led from Stormont?

The DUP has to decide whether it wants to remain a Devolutionist Unionist Party - with all the attendant difficulties of power-sharing with Sinn Fein - or prefers, for now, to be the Direct Rule Unionist Party.

Given recent events, the latter seems favourite.

Jon Tonge is professor of politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author - with Maire Braniff, Tom Hennessey, Jim McAuley and Sophie Whiting - of the book, The Democratic Unionist Party: From Protest to Power

Belfast Telegraph

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