UNIONISM, conservatism and religious fundamentalism were the founding principles of the DUP. It evolved from being a thorn in the side of the Stormont establishment to become unionism’s foremost voice. It has caught and exploited the unionist zeitgeist on many occasions since 1971 but as the party marks 50 years since its foundation, it faces unprecedented challenges and appears increasingly detached from its base.
When Rev Ian Paisley, already an MP for North Antrim, and barrister Desmond Boal founded the DUP, the north was experiencing ongoing violence sparked two years previously by pogroms and unionist opposition to the demands of the civil rights movement. The region had stood at the crossroads and taken a wrong turn.
Paisley and disaffected members of the Ulster Unionists believed that a harder line was required to counter what they characterised as a nationalist insurgency. In the 1973 assembly elections, which came a matter of months before the Sunnigndale Agreement, the party secured almost 11 per cent share of the vote, compared to 35.8 per cent gained by the UUP under Brian Faulkner’s leadership.
Within a matter of months, the DUP was among those claiming victory in the aftermath of the Ulster Workers Council strike, which saw Sunningdale collapse and direct rule imposed – remaining in place for another quarter of a century.
In the mid-1980s, unionism as a whole adopted a hardline approach to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, confident that with mass mobilisation it could achieve a similar outcome as had befallen the plans for power-sharing little over a decade earlier. Rev Paisley took a lead role in the protests and agitation, continuing his flirtation with paramilitarism while also sitting in Westminster and the European Parliament.
The resignation of UUP and DUP MPs’ seats in protest was part of joint plan to thwart the historic agreement. It cost Ulster Unionist Jim Nicholson his Newry and Armagh seat but it could also be argued that it stymied DUP growth in places where the party was gaining ground on what was then its larger unionist rival. In the 1983 Westminster election, DUP candidate Jim Allister came within 367 votes of Roy Beggs in East Antrim yet it was a further 22 years before the Ulster Unionists were unseated in the constituency.
Various stunts and protests, including Peter Robinson’s incursion into Clontibret in Co Monaghan, failed to change the British government’s mind on the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Arguably it was a watershed moment but due to a blinkered attitude carried over from decades of majoritarianism, many unionists failed to read the portents.
The DUP’s self-styled role as the uncompromising conscience of pure unionism continued through to the next decade and while the party is rightly portrayed as being anti-peace process and anti-power-sharing, this was a stance also adopted at the time by many in the Ulster Unionist Party.
The UUP dissidents’ undermining of David Trimble, coupled with wrangling over IRA decommissioning and the on-off nature of devolution, led to DUP electoral advances. Ian Paisley’s party eclipsed the UUP for the first time in 2003, when it won a majority of unionist assembly seats. The pattern was repeated two years later in the Westminster election, when the DUP returned nine MPs to the UUP’s one.
An extended courtship then began that would ultimately lead to power-sharing with Sinn Féin, the DUP’s direction being steered increasingly by Peter Robinson rather than his ageing leader.
The honeymoon period after the restoration of devolution in 2007 saw Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness develop a post-conflict bromance that sat uncomfortably with many in the DUP, and it wasn’t long before the leader of 37 years was forced to fall on his sword. It was the first glimpse that all was not well within the DUP family, an acrimonious departure from the party’s top job that was to be repeated some 13 years later.
The DUP that emerged under Peter Robinson was much more pragmatic and sought to consolidate the electoral advances made on the back of voter disillusionment with the UUP. Stormont remained relatively stable but his tenure wasn’t without its political and personal crises. That said, many of the developments we now take for granted, such as the devolution of justice and policing, were secured on the former East Belfast MP’s watch.
Mr Robinson appeared to break new ground for unionism by acknowledging that it needed to broaden its appeal if the link with the United Kingdom was to be maintained. In many areas he sought to normalise politics and make devolution effective for everybody yet was constantly hindered by his party’s less progressive elements.
The coronation of Arlene Foster in 2016 was seen as potential step change in how Stormont operated. The comparatively young, relatively liberal, non-Free Presbyterian leader’s tenure began with a degree of optimism. However, DUP support for Brexit and Mrs Foster’s involvement in the RHI scandal fuelled instability that ultimately crashed the institutions a year later.
Yet 2017 was a high water mark for the DUP as it secured its best election result ever and gained the balance of power at Westminster. The confidence and supply deal signed with Theresa May’s minority government is said to have secured an extra £2bn for Northern Ireland but it also saw the media in Britain highlight many of the DUP’s reactionary policies, such as its total opposition to abortion and resistance to LGBT+ rights. The coverage emphasised how much a party that professed so much affection for Britishness was out of kilter with the prevalent social attitudes in the rest of the UK.
New Decade New Approach saw Mrs Foster restored as first minister in January last year and during the early days of the pandemic she excelled as a stateswoman, presenting the executive’s response to Covid with clarity and authority.
Yet there was growing discontent within her party’s ranks, with many of the more reactionary elements regarding the Fermanagh-South Tyrone MLA as too soft, while her credibility had also being damaged by RHI.
The coup and the subsequent election of Edwin Poots as leader is still fresh in the mind. It was a month in Stormont politics quite like no other and an episode that is likely to cast a shadow over the DUP for many years to come.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson assumed the leadership of the party at a time when its popularity is said to be plummeting. The reasons for this depend on who you talk to, with the new leader’s allies arguing that it’s down to a lack of decisive action on the protocol, while others suggest it has more to do with a badly-handled Brexit and the north’s rapidly transforming social landscape.
A review overseen by Peter Robinson is expected to result in an overhaul of party structures, including a decentralisation of power away from headquarters, and some policy shifts towards the centre ground.
We will find out in the forthcoming assembly election how accurate recent opinion polls have been but there’s no doubt that the DUP has been unnerved. The ascendancy of Doug Beattie is also fuelling panic, though it could be argued that the new UUP leader is targeting unionists who’ve switched to Alliance in recent years rather than disgruntled DUP voters.
What is certain is that Northern Ireland has transformed politically and socially in the 50 years since the DUP’s foundation, and while the party too has adapted, it currently looks rather lost, unable to anchor itself on firm ground. Its solution is to return to the politics of protest and threaten destabilisation if its demands are not met. It’s a big gamble in a world where the odds are no longer in the DUP’s favour.
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