Belfast Telegraph

Move one of many baby steps to rebrand the party

By Professor Jon Tonge

The row between the DUP and Jim Wells highlights several areas of tension within the party.

These include the prominence of religiously-driven fundamentalist views, the roles of seemingly all-powerful special advisers, and the relationship between the DUP's Westminster team and the marooned (if still well-paid) MLAs.

Wells may have been more strident than most in his utterance that 'Peter will never marry Paul' in Northern Ireland. Likewise, his insistence that abortion is utterly wrong, even in cases of rape, has been forthright. Yet Wells is hardly at odds with DUP policy - or DUP members - on either issue. Every DUP MLA upheld positions akin to those of Wells in Assembly votes on same-sex marriage and abortion, the most recent in 2015 and 2016 respectively.

So this row is also about personalities as well as moral world views.

Some in the DUP leadership wish to change the party's image. Moral or Orange issues were strictly off-limits in the negotiations with the Conservatives. There are those at the top DUP table who would not be devastated if the Labour MP Conor McGinn succeeds in his private member's bill at Westminster and legalises same-sex marriage. Likewise, a very modest relaxation of abortion laws would not alarm some in the DUP leadership.

A strength of the DUP has always been that it knows its voter base. At the last general election, half of those voters supported the legalisation of same-sex marriage and more favoured the liberalisation of abortion laws than opposed. Younger DUP voters, like other electors, are increasingly socially liberal.

Wells certainly has the capacity to cause problems for the DUP if he stood as an independent, in the unlikely event of an Assembly election. That the DUP could lose its one-seat lead over Sinn Fein provides another powerful disincentive to the restoration of devolution.

The South Down MLA has been comfortably elected at each Assembly contest since 1998. He has averaged 13% of first preference vote across the contests. Wells is hardly a busted flush either. His 15.8 first preference vote share in 2017 was his highest ever.

And there is some evidence of a strong personal vote. The only time the DUP ran another candidate in South Down was in 2007. The party is normally very good at vote-spreading but the first preference tally for Wells more than doubled that for William Burns, his running mate.

Wells the Independent may not be transfer-friendly, although on the DUP ticket he attracted more than half of UUP elimination transfers last time.

Even if Wells failed to make it back to the Assembly, retention of circa 3,500 former DUP votes could allow Alliance, or possibly the UUP, to sneak a gain.

The deputy leader (and for some, the de facto boss) of the DUP, Nigel Dodds, once said that he viewed his party as part of the Christian Democrat club common across Europe. That is a long way from the religiously militant Protestant fundamentalist vision of the DUP's founder. Removing the whip from an MLA sitting in an Assembly that doesn't really exist - except in the monthly pay of its members - is hardly a decisive move towards rebranding the DUP, but it is one of many baby steps in that direction.

Belfast Telegraph

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