Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: DUP obviously on charm offensive to soften its image

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Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

Arlene Foster's recent attempts at outreach have received a broadly positive welcome.

Support for the Fermanagh GAA team, a meeting with LGBT community representatives, and Eid celebrations have all received some favourable responses. Even on Twitter.

At this rate we'll be seeing the former First Minister popping down to Dublin in August to embrace the Pope before heading off to watch an Alliance For Choice rally.

Several steps of outreach have, of course, been accompanied by other trips within the comfort zone. The Orange Order in Scotland awaits the arrival of Foster as star turn at a rally later this month.

There have been outreach gestures by unionist leaders in the past. Ultimately, the maths always beat the moderation. Siren voices claimed it was poor arithmetic to risk alienating the Protestant unionist core in pursuit of a few thousand Catholic votes.

And outreach and offence were often in close proximity.

The current charm offensive is designed to take some of the sting out of social and image issues for the DUP and allay fears that the party's social conservatism may somehow contribute to dismantling the Union.

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There are fears among some 'small u' unionists that the Union will be endangered if the DUP doesn't change its image. The UK-wide spotlight on the party has been intense over the last year.

Some fear that, somehow, the DUP's moral agendas could alienate either the local or wider British population to such an extent as to jeopardise Northern Ireland's place in the UK.

In reality, Brexit is of far greater import in terms of possible detachment. Despite all the controversy they engender, social issues are not a major source of party choice in Northern Ireland.

Our 2017 Northern Ireland General Election study asked voters the basis for their party choice. The constitution, Brexit (which worries a sizeable minority of unionists), the economy and the future of the Assembly were way ahead of social issues.

Among the DUP's own supporters, slightly more favoured the legalisation of same-sex marriage and abortion than opposed. So, many DUP backers are unconcerned by the DUP's moral stances. And to which party could DUP voters who do back their party's moral strictures possibly head should the DUP reluctantly accept liberalisation enacted by others?

Where the DUP, and potentially unionism, could be weakened is if large numbers of young people - much more in favour of legalising same-sex marriage and abortion - turned out to vote.

It's a myth that the DUP are regarded simply as dinosaurs or untouchable by young voters - one-in-three 18-24-year-old voters backed Foster's party in last year's Westminster contest.

But two-out-of-three did not vote at all. If they did vote and if they chose a party on the basis of social agendas, not unionism or nationalism, the DUP and unionism more broadly might be in greater difficulty. But 'if' and 'might' do not a crisis make - yet, at least.

Foster is on the socially liberal wing of the DUP. That may seem the ultimate in niche. Yet those who defected in droves to the DUP from the UUP in the early 2000s (one-quarter of the DUP's current membership) did not bring with them quite the dedication to religious and moral strictures held among the party they joined

Our DUP membership study found the ex-UUP contingent notably more liberal in their attitudes to homosexuality (and somewhat more so on abortion) compared to those already in the party. For Foster, the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland ultimately matters more than a particular type of marital union.

Whilst the DUP's own unionism historically owed much to a particular religious viewpoint, it also was obliged to accept change. A party that once campaigned to 'Save Ulster From Sodomy' and to keep play parks closed on a Sunday quietly dropped those efforts, swept away by changing societal sentiment.

And at some point, whether via legislation from Westminster or a revived Assembly, further aspects of Northern Ireland's social conservatism will be removed.

The 2016 Northern Ireland Life and Times survey offered evidence of still-extensive opposition to abortion, beyond the exceptional cases of fatal foetal abnormality and rape.

Yet it seems inconceivable that six of the 170 counties across the UK and Ireland will be able to maintain a distinct near-outright ban on abortion, or outlaw same-sex marriage, in the long-term.

DUP consciences can be salved in opposing change until the day new laws are enacted.

The day after, the DUP can continue its core business of winning elections and defending the Union, its membership and support bases intact.

Bereft of moral issues to argue about, the unionist versus nationalist fault line may become even more dominant (again). See Scotland. Maybe Ruth Davidson can assist Arlene in supporting different types of unions…

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author of The Democratic Unionist Party: From Protest To Power

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