Former Blanket columnist DR JOHN COULTER maintains the looming leadership battle within the DUP is not so much about who succeeds Peter Robinson, but what direction the new leadership will take the party. This is the question he ponders in this exclusive article for Open Unionism.
The future development of the DUP depends not so much on the third dynasty of the party, but in which political direction the new leadership takes it.
The fundamentalist Paisley dynasty is over, and the modernising Robinson dynasty looks certain to come to a close, perhaps even before next year’s European and shadow super council polls.
The DUP – even under Paisley senior – has always been a movement which puts the survival of the party first. Everyone becomes expendable at some time in the DUP.
Many have been quick to write off Robinson since the dramatic Maze shrine U-turn. But Robinson is Unionism’s version of former Southern Taioseach Charlie Haughey, the great political survivor. And there certainly can be no doubting that like him or loathe him, Peter Robinson has been one of the great survivors – not just within the DUP – but in both Unionist and Northern Ireland politics.
Since it was formally launched in 1971 from its forerunner, the Protestant Unionist Party, the DUP has seen many a person axed for lesser allegations than the Robinson dynasty has faced.
While the DUP under Paisley senior has stolen the rival Ulster Unionists’ political clothes, policies, position within Unionism and ultimately voters and seats, the DUP has also inherited the UUP’s troubles.
The DUP as a movement will be wary that the UUP should have dumped First Minister David Trimble before the 2005 Westminster General Election. Trimble had become a political millstone because he failed to shift the UUP to the radical Right to combat the electoral surge from the DUP, which really went into top gear in the 2003 Assembly poll.
Who in the DUP will deem that Robinson has become a political liability and rather than keep him through the 2014 polls and hope Unionist voters do not either return to the UUP, or defect to other parties, the DUP should ‘persuade’ him to step down and allow a new leader to settle in well before next year’s elections?
There is a significant body of opinion in what now remains of the UUP that the party should have dumped Trimble after the 2003 Stormont drubbing, and put in a dynamic right-wing leader who could have built the party thereby avoiding the Westminster General Election disaster two years later.
The DUP faces a number of problems politically. Clearly, like all pro-Union parties there is the crisis of the increasingly low turnouts in the Unionist camp compared to the nationalist community. But with the Union flag debacle at Belfast City Hall and this summer’s parades disputes, especially at the Ardoyne Shops in north Belfast, is there the possibility that Unionists will return to the polling booths in their thousands as some form of political revenge mobilisation against the Alliance Party?
Another crisis is the gulf between the DUP and the loyalist working class. To gain power from the UUP, the DUP had to significantly invade – and hold – the UUP’s traditional middle class Unionist strongholds.
While the DUP successfully invaded the Unionist middle class, it did so while abandoning the DUP’s own traditional bastion – the Protestant working class. In this respect, the DUP has been unable to copy its Stormont Executive partners. Provisional Sinn Fein electorally hammered its SDLP rival by venturing emphatically into the latter’s Catholic middle class strongholds.
But Sinn Fein achieved this while still holding a firm grip on its traditional republican working class heartlands, as Sinn Fein North Belfast MLA Gerry Kelly’s prominent presence at the controversial Tyrone Volunteers event in Castlederg clearly demonstrated.
The DUP now faces significant opposition for the working class loyalist community from the UVF’s political advisor, the Progressive Unionist Party, and the even more hardline Protestant Coalition party. The staunchly anti-European Union United Kingdom Independence Party is also making a strong bid to establish itself as a significant force in Ulster politics.
This was recently demonstrated with the high profile visit of its leader, Nigel Farage MEP, got an enthusiastic reception when he toured loyalist working class areas of east Belfast – once Robinson’s Westminster bastion.
Likewise, in his speech to supporters at the Stormont Hotel, Mr Farage hinted that in the forthcoming European election, it was the DUP seat held by Diane Dodds which was most at risk from UKIP rather than veteran MEP Jim Nicholson’s UUP seat, in spite of the disastrous 2011 Assembly showing for the Ulster Unionists.
A hallmark of Robinson’s leadership was his desire to attract more pro-Union Catholic voters to the DUP. Traditionally, this section of society tended to vote for either liberal Ulster Unionists or Alliance. Perhaps one reason that Robinson was having to do this was because many Protestant voters were abandoning the ballot box.
This section of Unionism had mainly been in the Protestant middle class and were dubbed ‘Garden Centre Prods’. But with the emergence of a significant section of working class Protestants who had switched off voting, a new problem emerged for all pro-Union parties – the so-called ‘Allotment Loyalists’; working class loyalists who have not even bothered to register, let alone vote.
The DUP’s problems were compounded by a regeneration of the PUP, which now sees its support at around the same level as the 1998 Good Friday Agreement when it secured two MLAs – the late David Ervine in East Belfast, and current leader Billy Hutchinson in North Belfast.
The DUP currently contains three significant factions which will have a major bearing on who succeeds Robinson. Firstly, the modernisers – these would be Robinson supporters and would like a leader who could carry on in the direction that party is currently taking. Stormont Ministers Arlene Foster and Simon Hamilton would champion this faction, with Arlene a major front runner to succeed Robinson.
Secondly, the loyalists – these are people who want the DUP to re-engage with its traditional working class Protestant roots. Former Finance Minister and current East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson – often know as Red Sammy because of his pro-socialist and working class politics – would be their champion.
And thirdly, the traditional fundamentalists. Once the dominant faction within the DUP and manipulated by the staunchly evangelical Christian Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster during the Paisley era. Its champion would be the East Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell.
However, the demise of the Paisley dynasty and the dilution of the fundamentalist faction is best seen in that neither Paisley Junior, from North Antrim, and South Antrim MP William McCrea, the Free Presbyterian cleric and leading Gospel singer, are viewed as serious contenders to succeed Robinson.
The pro-Paisley faction in the DUP also suffered a major blow when Paisley senior’s clergyman son was not appointed as minister of the Martyr’s Memorial Free Presbyterian Church in Belfast – Paisley senior’s spiritual stomping grounds for many decades since he founded the Free Presbyterian Church in 1951.
Direction-wise, the DUP has a number of choices. It could follow Robinson’s direction and battle for the middle ground in Ulster politics. But that route pitches the DUP into a vicious dogfight with other middle ground parties such as Alliance, the Northern Ireland Tories and Basil McCrea’s new moderate, pluralist Unionist party, NI21.
It can aim for Unionist unity or co-operation and try to form a coalition with its main rival, the Ulster Unionists. Perhaps even a merger is on the cards with the Mike Nesbitt party. The DUP could even enter an electoral pact with other pro-Union parties such as the PUP, Ulster Political Research Group, Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice, UKIP and even the new Protestant Coalition.
However, the key word here is ‘trust’. Do these other parties trust the DUP? In the past, the DUP has only wanted Unionist unity when it suited the Paisley or Robinson camps. If the DUP was under pressure, the party championed the cause of Unionist unity, but if the DUP was in the ascendancy, Unionist unity was a dirty phrase, never to be dabbled with.
Finally, the DUP can return to its Paisleyite roots as a champion for the strange alliance of working class loyalists and evangelical Christians. This DUP was to the hard Right on the constitution, but to the soft Left on bread and butter issues.
The more cynical observers could point to the number of former UUP members now in the DUP, especially in influential positions such as Arlene Foster and Jeffrey Donaldson. Certainly Foster as a leader could cement the moves towards co-operation, a coalition, and eventual merger with the UUP.
But there is still a considerable rump of DUP supporters and member who have been ‘hard core’ DUP from their early political careers. The only party they have been members of is the DUP. Would they appreciate being led by someone or a faction which had ‘jumped ship’ from other Unionist parties?
While North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds is both an ‘original’ DUP man and commands a very strong degree of respect among UUP voters and members, his recent highly publicised health problem at Westminster has thrown up serious questions as to his physical ability to lead the party. He has the respect and expertise, but does he have the health, especially a DUP which is now on the back foot with the loyalist working class?
So, who are the three key candidates with the directional abilities to succeed Robinson? Firstly, Arlene Foster’s experience and her former UUP credentials could lead the party into a better coalition with the UUP.
Secondly, Sammy Wilson can kick start the DUP’s traditional links with the loyalist working class.
And finally, the Christians in the DUP could rally behind Gregory Campbell as the dark horse and bring the DUP back to its 1971 roots.
Likewise, does the DUP want to go for a Belfast-based leadership, or a leader who will rally rural activists?
Under Robinson’s leadership, the DUP has become the old liberal O’Neillite Unionist Party under another name.
I have made no secret that I want to see a single Unionist Party representing all shades of pro-Union opinion using a pressure group structure. In this respect, if I was a DUP member voting for a new leader, I would plump for Sammy Wilson.
As a life-long supporter of the Ulster Unionist Party, I have always had a high regard for the bread and butter politics of Red Sammy. The massive Church vote likes him, but he is not a raving fundamentalist who hammers other denominations in the way in which the Free Church used to criticise other Protestant denominations.
Whoever wins the DUP leadership battle – assuming, of course, that Robinson decides it is in his own best interests to go – that person’s strategy must be to form a Unionist Coalition which will mobilise pro-Union voters. That person will have to defeat the twin evils of voter apathy and fragmentation.
Just as the UUP leadership eventually became a poisoned chalice, is there also the danger being DUP boss could hold the same political cup of poison? At the moment, does the pro-Union community ‘trust’ the DUP, and would a knee-jerk to the 1985 Council policy of ‘Smash Sinn Fein’ work in the Assembly?
Has Robinson one last political trick up his sleeve to stabilise his leadership, or like Maggie Thatcher, Ian Paisley senior and Gordon Brown, are the men in grey suits hovering for a coup?
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