Analysis: It might not look like it, but the DUP is changing

Peter Robinson signalled a potentially significant shift for the DUP this week
Peter Robinson signalled a potentially significant shift for the DUP this week

Jim Wells’ comments have reinforced the popular belief that the DUP’s approach to issues such as sexuality have changed little since the days of ‘Save Ulster from Sodomy’.

In fact, this week there has been a potentially radical shift in DUP policy on what it sees as ‘moral issues’, a shift which is likely to be much more significant than the social media furore over what was said in Downpatrick on Thursday night.

At the DUP manifesto launch on Tuesday, Peter Robinson confirmed to the News Letter that his MLAs are likely to be given a free vote on David Ford’s bill to allow for abortion in cases where it is judged that the unborn child could not survive outside the womb.

If that happens, it will mean that for the first time the DUP has not taken a party position to oppose a relaxation (albeit in this case a very narrow relaxation) of Northern Ireland’s strict ban on abortion.

He said: “We’re the party that’s looking for a conscience clause. It would be a bit odd if we were seeking to have a conscience clause for people in the community and weren’t to allow our own members to have a free vote on those matters.”

The logic of the DUP leader’s reasoning for that decision has inescapable conclusions for other Assembly votes.

Westminster’s major parties have long allowed free votes on issues such as abortion, gay marriage and euthanasia. If individual conscience is the barometer for abortion, then it would, in Mr Robinson’s words, be “odd” to not allow MLAs to exercise their consciences in other areas, including gay rights.

It is worth being explicit about what Mr Robinson was not saying. Crucially, he was not suggesting that DUP MLAs will en masse vote to relax the prohibition on abortion or support same-sex marriage.

For the vast majority of DUP MLAs, exercising their conscience freely would mean opposing both of those proposals.

But it has become increasingly difficult for the DUP leadership to hold together a party whose membership is no longer simply analogous with the views of the Free Presbyterian Church.

At least one DUP MLA has a gay child, while others have been divorced or live with unmarried partners. Many now are former Ulster Unionists who do not share Ian Paisley’s mix of politics and religion; they joined the DUP because it was a successful, growing unionist party – not because they saw it as a means of expressing their faith, as is the case for many of those who joined the DUP in decades past.

Just beneath the surface, the DUP is changing.

Among those who haven’t yet realised that are some of its members.