NIO civil servants described the DUP as having started as a “crypto-fascist splinter group” which had evolved into a slick political machine where many senior figures partly backed devolution because they were ambitious and saw the potential for political careers at Stormont.
The confidential assessment, which is among files declassified at the Public Record Office in Belfast under the 20 Year Rule, was prepared in the early 1990s as unionists prepared to re-engage in talks with the SDLP about restoring Stormont after years of detachment and protests against the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
The blunt analysis said of Ian Paisley’s party: “It is still evolving, and over the years it has matured into a credible and well organised body with a distinctive set of policies in opposition to those of the UUP.
“Its early days as a crypto-fascist splinter group, and its associations with some of the wilder men on the Protestant side are now regarded as something of a hindrance. But something of the old motivation and belief still remains in many of the party’s supporters.”
It observed that “the party’s ethos has been built around the nature and character of Dr Paisley...the other key players are Sammy Wilson, Peter Robinson, Nigel Dodds, William McCrea, Simpson Gibson and Gregory Campbell.
“They are all conviction politicians and all of them, despite a degree of personal following in some cases, ultimately owe their positions to Paisley.
“Nigel Dodds is probably the person most in the leader’s confidence. Peter Robinson, on the other hand, is certainly the most independent, especially since his resignation and subsequent re-appointment as deputy leader in late 1987; he is also the most astute, although the most distrusted by the more right-wing elements within the party.
“The tensions between the ‘religious’ and the ‘political’ wings of the party have always been evident. The Free Presbyterians are mostly in the rural areas, and tend to be right-wing in social and economic beliefs.
“The Free Presbyterian Church...is no longer growing; but whatever happens within the party this fundamentalist element will remain in being and find significant expression somewhere in NI politics.”
The September 1990 analysis described the DUP’s political philosophy as “complex”, with on the one hand a left-wing approach to social welfare and other populist issues, while on the other hand acting “zealously - even intolerantly - on many traditional moral issues from the opening of public parks on Sundays to abortion and sexual propriety. Its policies are thus a strange, and distinctively Ulster, mixture of left and right.”
The document argued that the DUP’s support for devolution was “partly in response to the desire of many within its leadership to have full-time political careers and partly because of the feeling that in order for it to survive the DUP must develop a distinctive and leading role for itself”.
It said that the party’s “attitude to paramilitaries on the Protestant side has been less than clear.
“The leadership has had a history, certainly until about 1988, of associating itself with paramilitary organisations, the most recent example being its involvement in the formation of Ulster Resistance. (Although it should be noted that the party was keen to distance itself from that organisation after the arrests in Paris of Noel Lyttle and his confederates.”
“It is a party full of inherent contradictions which sometimes surface in public statements combining moderate sentiments with bombastic rhetoric”.
However, the analysis concluded that for all the DUP’s issues, it was - unlike the UUP - “regarded by other bodies as a party with which it is possible to do business”.