DUP's dominance poses problems for the party

  • 12 October 2005
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The DUP rose to power by exploiting the crisis of confidence in unionism. But their critics are now questioning how effective they have been in leading the unionist cause, and whether their political agenda is outdated, writes Colm Heatley

Recent weeks have brought mixed fortunes for Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). IRA decommissioning posed a serious challenge to the DUP's hardline anti-republican stance while last week's raids on suspected IRA houses in England has eased the pressure on the party to recognise Sinn Fein's mandate.

Since storming to victory in last May's Westminster elections, the DUP is finding that its role as a bulwark against the momentum of the peace process is more difficult as a party of power than a party of protest.

Last week the DUP presented Tony Blair with a 63-page document outlining unionist demands and "confidence-building" measures in return for the party's participation in the peace process.

They left with just a rates exemption for Orange Halls in Northern Ireland, a lot less than they had hoped for.

Taking 33.7 per cent of the vote in May's election was the highpoint of the party's 35-year existence. The vote was all the more remarkable given that in 1997 the DUP secured just over 13 per cent of the vote and was effectively sidelined by Tony Blair, who believed there was little point talking to a party so steadfastly opposed to the peace process.

But over the past five years the DUP has benefited enormously from a perception within unionism that the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) has been soft on republicanism and allowed "concession after concession" to republicans

The failure of former UUP leader David Trimble to face down the hardliners allowed the perception to grow.

Critics of the DUP are now asking how effective they have been in fighting the unionist cause, and if their political project under Ian Paisley is based upon a misreading of the political realities in Northern Ireland.

After the IRA's July statement pledging to dump arms, the British government moved swiftly to announce the disbandment of the Royal Irish Regiment and the demilitarisation of republican areas, particularly South Armagh.

The DUP response was apoplectic but ultimately the party could do little but shout from the sidelines.

It is expected that within the next fortnight the British Government will announce that IRA "On-the-Runs" will be allowed to return to Northern Ireland. Again, the move will anger the DUP but it will be powerless to stop it.

The paradox of the DUP is that its political success is built upon its perceived ability to stop change, yet its vote has soared at a time of unparalleled change in Northern Ireland.

For unionist voters, Ian Paisley's enduring appeal is his message of "not an inch and no surrender to the IRA", which has remained unchanged for the past five decades.

However, now that he finally has the political clout he always sought, that message sounds more outdated than ever. Attempts to engage in street protests, a past tactic of Paisley's, could alienate this enlarged unionist middle-class vote.

The DUP is a party which bridges many internal divides.

There is a religious divide within the party's MPs, between those who follow Ian Paisley's Free Presbyterianism, such as David Simpson and Willie McCrea, and those in the secular wing, such as Peter Robinson, Nigel Dodds and Jeffrey Donaldson.

The rural mass of the party tends toward religion, the urban toward secularism.

Ian Paisley's statement last month, "Direct Rule does not bother me", suggests his instincts lie with the rural base of his party, and he is the undisputed and towering leader of the DUP.

Dr Paul Dixon, a former politics lecturer at the University of Ulster and a close observer of unionist politics, says there is an ongoing internal debate within the DUP.

"They are definitely holding out the prospect that they will go for a deal. There are some people within the DUP who will go for that, but the debate is about what point their constituency will go for that," he says.

"It is difficult to know how much is theatrical illusion with the DUP. There is the possibility that they will settle for being the biggest political party in Northern Ireland and be comfortable with that.

"But there is a progressive wing within the party."

So far the DUP has resisted all of the developments which emerged from the peace process. However, such a policy might eat away at their vote, with many unionists becoming increasingly frustrated by a lack of progress, an indefinite limbo, in Northern Ireland.

Religion has always been central to Ian Paisley's political message, and he has never flinched from playing the religious card.

Earlier this year, when he gave his first press conference at Stormont following reports of his ill-health, he accused "Romanist journalists" of inventing the story.

Across Northern Ireland, the DUP has a good reputation for constituency work and is seen as more accessible and pro-active than its mainly middle-class rivals in the UUP.

Yet Ian Paisley's own constituency, Ballymena, is the heroin capital of Northern Ireland, a problem which didn't merit a mention in the party's manifesto.

The DUP was founded in 1971 at the height of unionist insecurity about their future role in Northern Ireland, and politically it has always benefited from a "crisis of confidence" within unionism.

Like any successful political movement, it is now finding that the transformation from party of protest to power brings difficulties and invites criticism.

"They are finding that it is not as easy as they thought it was," says UUP leader Reg Empey.

"You just have to look at the summer when the Prime Minister rolled all over them to see that."

With Paisley on the throne, Dodds and Robinson will not speak out of turn, but it was they who argued most forcefully for the DUP to take its ministerial seats in the Stormont Executive, pre-IRA decommissioning.

If they are to strike a deal with Sinn Fein, to which they were close last Christmas, they must once more carry their leader with them.