"It is a vote-winning machine ruled with iron
discipline. It backs the death penalty but supports liberal causes too. It
rules our land but remains something of a mystery? On the eve of its annual
conference a question. What is the DUP?"
The Democratic Unionist party is
Northern Ireland's most powerful and distinctive, political movement but it
remains a bundle of contradictions. It is held together by iron discipline
imposed by a party management machine, many of whose members were recruited
from its more liberal opponents.
It has, in Peter Robinson, a
leader who repeatedly pitches for Catholic votes as the most likely way to
expand its massive power base. Yet its MPs were to the fore in arguing against
the British Monarch being allowed to marry a Catholic. In the run up to the
party conference, the leader himself threatened to resign and cause an election
on the issue of royal insignia in the prison service.
These are not causes that will
appeal to unionist non-voters, much less Catholics. The fact that they were
pursued with such determination shows both internal strains and growing pains.
Mr Robinson is possessed of the coolest political brain, and arguably the
thinnest skin, in Northern Ireland politics. He takes politics personally,
bears grudges and takes the ups and downs to heart. Yet he judges the political
possibilities dispassionately. Like a good poker player, he knows when to hold
and when to fold.
He can pursue a policy over time
and keep his counsel - both qualities which the DUP's founder, Ian Paisley,
lacked. A passionate man with strong guiding principles, Dr Paisley was more of
a political opportunist than a strategist. He found it difficult to keep quiet
about anything and he had little time for any organisation which he could not
The DUP's deepest historical
roots lie in the Protestant Unionist Party which Ian Paisley founded along with
the Free Presbyterian Church as political movements he could lead himself. He
used them as a platform to attack the ecclesiastical and political leadership
of the Protestant and Unionist community. He painted an apocalyptic picture of
sell-out to Rome and Dublin by clerical and political appeasers, splitting
churches and bringing down the big house unionist leaders who sneered at him.
For a long time the whole
movement was known popularly as "Paisleyism" after the ebullient clergyman who
founded it. There is no such movement as "Robinsonism", but Mr Robinson has
been in the DUP leadership since 1975 and has been the crucial figure behind
its current success. It may even have peaked under his leadership. Only time
In 1987, after Margaret Thatcher
faced down unionist opposition to the Anglo Irish Agreement, he and leading
Ulster Unionists co-authored a document, the Task Force Report, urging a
strategic rethink. When it was rejected by Paisley and Jim Molyneaux, the
Ulster Unionist leader, Mr Robinson resigned briefly from the party.
When he returned, he knew that
the path to growth lay through the defeat of the UUP and negotiation from a
position of strength. He never again challenged the DUP's Paisleyite ancient
prejudices with public talk of reassessment, much less compromise, until the
party was dominant. That was the only way in which Rev Paisley would cut a
If we flip forward to this
weekend's DUP conference, we see Robinson in undisputed control, having
succeeded Paisley in what amounted to a coronation in 2008.
The UUP has been hollowed out.
Many of its rising stars defected to the DUP, frustrated by its weaknesses. Mr
Robinson recruited politicians who
were amongst the UUP's rising stars. Arlene Foster, Jeffrey Donaldson, Peter
Weir, Simon Hamilton and Jonathan Bell are examples amongst elected
politicians. In the backrooms, one of Mr Robinson's closest advisers, Timothy
Johnston, comes from a UUP background and another, Richard Bullick, is a former
Tory. Members of the media team, like Clive McFarland, come from the UUP as
does Lee Reynolds, a key strategist.
but not all of these, were high profile dissidents in the UUP but the DUP has
made them team players, partly by giving them a strong and united team to play
One former UUP member mentioned
to me that by comparison with the squabbling and back biting of his former
party, the DUP felt more like a family. Rev Paisley would put his arm round
you, call you brother and make you feel you were welcomed. Unless, he might
have added, you crossed him.
That was a relic of the party's
days as a protest movement with a strong common purpose, but it is a family
that has little patience with prodigal sons. A long time DUP member contrasted
his party with the UUP by giving the example of Alex Kane, the commentator,
who, although a former UUP strategist, has often written scathingly about his
party's failings. "They brought Alex back to do some contract work for them at
the last election," my friend said. "If I had been that critical about the DUP
I'd never get a penny from the party, not if I was starving in a ditch
somewhere. If you are out, you are out."
Media management is robust. MLAs
who give interviews which cross party lines are hauled over the coals and
journalists who are judged to have been unfair can expect a call from John
Robinson, the party's current head of communications.
This tough love approach, and a
skilful distribution of rewards through the rotation of many posts, helps bond
the old and new wings of the DUP together. It is a strategy dependent on
growth. Mr Robinson may have lost his Westminster seat, but his leadership
delivered two new assembly seats in May. On his watch there are jobs for loyal
members. The power of patronage is vital to any political leader. It is well
funded from Stormont and Westminster.
Every MLA and Westminster seat
carries back room jobs and money with it. Lose a few and there would soon be
policy differences. The DUP's unity, discipline and success also helps keep it at
the top of unionism. Voters see it as the party best able to uphold their
sectional interests against Sinn Féin without risking the stability of the
executive. Being able to provide that has kept a diverse voter base, new
converts as well as old line fundamentalists, on board. It is the same with
Sinn Féin in the nationalist community, success in upholding tribal interests
can still doubts about policy details.
But where has the
party to go next?It polls
its support base regularly and insiders feel that it is losing its working
class appeal even as it wows the middle class. Another problem is that in
peacetime, and without Paisleyite predictions of doom, unionist voters stay at
home in greater numbers than nationalists. In a recent interview Mr Robinson
even conceded that there is a danger that Sinn Féin may overtake the DUP,
making him the last unionist First Minister.
That is something which would put
deep, perhaps unbearable strains, on a party used only to success and growth.
It is not a legacy Mr Robinson, who is unlikely to remain leader past the next
election, would relish leaving to a successor.
Instead, he aims to turn his
party into an all encompassing centre right popular party with just a flavour
of its fundamentalist origins, like Fianna Fáil in the Republic or the
Gaullists in France. That could mean a sort of DUP lite with no added
Paisleyism, which could attract people who wouldn't have touched the original.
The problem with reaching out to
new voters is that you can lose old ones in the process, people who have been
loyal for years. Yet if you try to please the old guard, you risk alienating
the uncommitted and appealing to an aging base.
It is tough at the top - and if
you don't get it right, the only way is down. Still, most local parties would
prefer the DUP's problems to their own.