Not much to fear, but DUP can’t afford complacency

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

Towards the end of last week it was beginning to look like the DUP would have to employ a full-time member of staff just to draft ‘apologies’ for MLAs and councillors.

On top of that they were taking a daily barrage of flak from the UUP, TUV, UKIP, the Orange Order and victims groups about a ‘shrine’ at the Maze (as Mike Nesbitt noted, only the DUP and UDA support it); and then the TUV left the Unionist Forum, claiming that the DUP seemed happier to cosy up to Sinn Fein than to work with fellow unionists.

If I believed even half of the stuff I read across the social media I’d be penning the DUP’s political/electoral obituary right now!

So, is the DUP in trouble? Well, while it’s obvious that some of their rivals are acting up because they think they can see blood in the water, they would be wrong – very wrong – to conclude that the DUP has lost the run of itself.

The scale and nature of their difficulties is nothing like that faced by David Trimble or even Brian Faulkner. There may be concerns inside the party but you won’t hear any voice being raised outside. There will be no ‘crossing the floor’ to either the UUP or TUV, a pretty sure sign that there isn’t a DUP MLA who thinks re-election chances would be improved in another party.

But if the other unionist parties think that the DUP is in trouble (and a few days ago a senior UUP member told me that the DUP was ‘heading for the rocks, big time’) then they need to start rethinking their own position and strategy.

For example, Jim Allister (unless I’ve misunderstood his position) doesn’t want to share Executive power with Sinn Fein: so what is he offering disenchanted DUP voters? In other words, if they vote for him what do they get?

My own impression is that the vast majority of unionists – albeit without any great enthusiasm – has accepted Sinn Fein in government and want a unionist to retain the post of First Minister. So would enough of them be willing to vote for a party which is still opposed to Sinn Fein in government? Allister needs a very nuanced and calibrated answer to some very difficult questions.

What would the UUP do? While the TUV has put very considerable distance between itself and the DUP, the UUP remains in the Executive and in the Unionist Forum. Yet the danger of trying to ride so many horses at any one time is that, like Lord Ronald, Nesbitt will eventually fling himself upon one horse and ‘ride madly off in all directions’.

Fine, he may try and shift the party to the right (and in so doing scare off any remaining moderates) but the sort of people who now feel betrayed by the DUP are hardly likely to return to the UUP, the party they still hold responsible for early releases, dismantling of the RUC and a sell-out Agreement.

The PUP is running a very active recruitment and propaganda campaign, but its continuing links with, and sympathy for, the UVF mean that there will be no electoral breakthrough anytime soon – apart from maybe a handful of councillors.

UKIP, especially if it reaches some sort of deal with the TUV for Euro and Assembly elections, may bite into the DUP and UUP, but I can’t see it picking up much in the way of Assembly seats. The local Conservatives are dead in the water and will remain in that state.

It’s still too early to make a call on NI21. Their first big test will be the Euro election and they will need a good campaign and result if they are to gain momentum for the council, general and Assembly elections. Anyway, they represent a greater threat to the UUP and Alliance than they do to the DUP.

While it may be true – and I think it is – that the DUP hasn’t all that much to fear from its unionist rivals, it certainly isn’t in any position to be complacent.

Indeed, its biggest threat may be from people who voted for it last time just staying at home rather than jumping to another party. There was evidence of that happening with the UUP and Bob McCartney’s UKUP, where the total number of voters who left doesn’t show up in the rise of the DUP’s vote between 1998 and 2007.

The DUP is at its most ruthlessly effective with its back to the wall – as it proved in the period between the May 1997 local government elections (arguably its worst result since 1981) and December 1999, when it decided to accept ministerial office. The difference now is that Peter Robinson is no longer in day-to-day charge in the way that he was while Ian Paisley was leader and then First Minister. That lack of control shows. Maybe not in huge ways – but it still shows.

Robinson’s problem is that while he was able to step into Paisley’s shoes as leader, there has been no one to step into his shoes as chief strategist, tactician, thinker and manipulator.

My guess is that the DUP will use the summer recess to regroup and rethink. It will shift to the right, albeit not too far, and may be able to reach some sort of compromise with Sinn Fein (which doesn’t want to deal with Allister or Nesbitt) over the ‘shrine’ at the Maze difficulty. And then it will come out with all guns blazing on the propaganda/political/electoral fronts. Robinson hasn’t come this far just to go the way of O’Neill, Faulkner, and Trimble or, dare I say it, of Ian Paisley.