Analysis: If ever a party needed a leadership contest, it is the DUP

Peter Robinson, in October 2015
Peter Robinson, in October 2015

The expectation is that the DUP will not have a leadership contest, with a ‘coronation’ of Nigel Dodds as leader and Arlene Foster as First Minister, much like the unchallenged transition from Ian Paisley to Peter Robinson.

Even if there is some sort of contest, it will presumably be entirely in-house as the only electors are DUP MPs, MLAs and its MEP.

Yet there is an argument that if any political party now needs to have a full and frank discussion about its future, it is the DUP.

The party has changed fundamentally in the space of little over a decade – from a position where its identity was synonymous with trenchant opposition to David Trimble’s continued place in government with Sinn Fein while the IRA retained guns to a place where the DUP’s position in government with Sinn Fein while the IRA retains guns causes it little thought.

On social and ethical matters, too, the party is changing – though that transition is far from apparent in public.

News story: Robinson admits DUP leadership election rules have to change

Yesterday Mr Robinson told Mark Devenport that he would be happy to give DUP MLAs a free vote on abortion or gay marriage – effectively stating that the party itself has no position on those issues.

Mr Robinson claimed that “we don’t need to have a whip” because all of its MLAs agree to oppose issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

Yet on both issues, there are MLAs who do not agree with the party position, though they may not have expressed that to the leader.

There are now those within the party – both among the traditionalists and among the modernisers – who privately believe that there should be a contest and that the party now needs to debate and decide on a core question: What does the DUP of 2015 stand for?

Such a process would involve bruising debate – as both Labour and the SDLP have recently found from their respective leadership contests – and that makes it unattractive to a party which loathes external scrutiny of its innermost workings. Yet although leadership contests can be divisive for a period, the new leader emerges from such a process with a mandate for his or her policies.

Avoiding a leadership contest may (or may not) avoid public debate within the party about its future and preserve the pretence of one large happy family.

But if the new leader of the DUP does not have a clear mandate from those who make up the party – either to change current core positions or to retain them – then he or she will be storing up future trouble.

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