How the DUP has fought to leave its roots behind

Just because the party has laboured hard to modernise does not mean Theresa May will find them a pushover
June 13, 2017

The Democratic Unionist Party, uniquely in the United Kingdom, is a political party founded on the basis of fear of an outside enemy and fanatical adherence to the Protestant religion. Its formation was announced in September 1971, on the night of one of the first major Provisional IRA bombings in Belfast, by Rev. Ian Paisley, then known largely as a rabble-rousing ultra-Protestant preacher and scourge of any unionist government that contemplated even the slightest move towards liberalism in Northern Ireland. Early internal debates were over whether it should be called the Protestant Unionist or Democratic Unionist Party.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s its electoral support grew steadily, as fearful Northern Ireland Protestants gathered around its charismatic leader at a time when the very nature and existence of their sectarian statelet, under murderous pressure from the IRA, seemed to be at stake. In the early 1980s, it was estimated that 90% of its elected representatives were members of Paisley's Free Presbyterian Church, a small fundamentalist denomination in a province of such denominations. The main difference was that its leader's aim, ultimately realised, was to replace the old Ulster Unionist Party as the province's dominant political force, and to become its first minister. As it turned out (in 2007), Paisley's overweening ambition meant he would be prepared to do the unimaginable: to go into power-sharing government with the bitterest of unionism's enemies, the political party of the IRA, Sinn Féin.

In Paisley, my 1986 biography co-authored with Ed Moloney, I wrote about the people who then followed him as their religio-political leader as follows: "They believed they were inherently superior to their Roman Catholic neighbours because of their religion. They were 'born again' Christians, living in the 'light' of pure Protestantism, free men who communed with God without the interference of priests or man-made rituals. Catholics, on the other hand, were benighted and ignorant souls who were enslaved by the 'darkness' of Roman superstition, the idolatry of the Mass, and the rule of the papal antichrist. Such a view tallied perfectly with the superiority they felt anyway as the descendants of the people who had 'civilised' Ulster... Thus the underprivileged position of Northern Catholics was nothing to do with injustice: quite the opposite—it was living proof of God's justice in rewarding those who followed the true religion."

Have things changed in the past 30 years since the bigotry and near-racism of such antediluvian beliefs? It is still easy to demonise the DUP as the most right-wing party in the UK. The truth is a little more complicated these days. Around 30% of its representatives in the Northern Ireland Assembly continue to hold such ancient anti-Catholic notions, according to the estimate of one politically-conscious Belfast Protestant minister. A larger number, probably a majority, still have deeply conservative views on gay marriage and abortion, positions which ironically see them on occasion making common cause with the Catholic Church.

However, the make-up of the party has changed considerably since its second leader, Peter Robinson, laboured hard to increase its appeal to the broader unionist community, and particularly middle-class unionists, and to tone down its more unattractive fundamentalist aspects. One veteran Belfast commentator describes party members now as  being "still overwhelmingly churchgoers, but younger, happier, more open to outside influences, a little more liberal."  When one of their more hard-line politicians objected to Sinn Féin canvassing his mainly unionist town on a Sunday during the election campaign, he got short shrift from his party colleagues. DUP leader Arlene Foster, for all her forbidding self-presentation, is an example of the new breed: a pragmatic former Ulster Unionist who is genuinely open to a return of power-sharing with Sinn Féin; an Anglican by religion who counts among her friends the new, openly gay Taoiseach of the Republic, Leo Varadkar; and a border region person who realises that a hard Brexit, and therefore a hard Irish border, will affect her Fermanagh neighbours in a far more damaging way than any other group in the UK.

However, one thing remains constant. At times of political crisis, when unionists feel that Northern Ireland is under particular threat, they turn away from the kind of moderate unionism which seeks reconciliation with their traditional nationalist and republican enemies. This was shown again in the general election when—in the face of a Sinn Féin surge in the March Assembly election which saw that party come within 1,200 votes of the DUP—their vote increased by more than 10% since the 2015 election. When Sinn Féin comes anywhere near threatening to become Northern Ireland's largest party—with the likelihood that in doing so they will be able to activate the 1998 Belfast Agreement clause which requires the British government to hold a referendum on Irish unity—unionist voters desert other parties with that tag and circle the wagons around the largest, hardest party of the union, the DUP.

And Theresa May should not think that the DUP will be a pushover. They are long used to being the awkward squad, whether it was in opposing successive British-Irish agreements in the 1980s and 1990s or dealing with those hardest of hard negotiators, Sinn Féin, over the past decade and more. They may still be a party which at its heart exists as a bulwark against Irish unity, but they are more pragmatic, more outward looking and more open to compromise than at any time in their 46-year history. And Arlene Foster, having come back from the dead at the time of the March Assembly election, will make the most of  holding the balance of power in the House of Commons and propping up a right-wing, pro-Brexit government: what her MP colleague, Jeffrey Donaldson, calls "perfect territory for the DUP."