Alex Kane: Sorry Arlene, the DUP is still the same party you joined in 2004

Arlene Foster was wrong to say the DUP isn’t the party she joined. It is. It is precisely the same party she joined in 2004. Precisely the same party it was when Ian Paisley founded it in September 1971. A party which will always prioritise narrow self-interest above and beyond all else. And still does.

Monday, 3rd May 2021, 1:00 pm

It’s the party she wasn’t able to change. The party which, at a gathering of its Borgia, Calvinist and neo-Darwinian (the iconoclastic, survival-at-all-costs political careerists who mostly joined in the last decade) wings agreed she would be the doormat upon which all the DUP’s problems would be dumped. They did it to Paisley in 2008. They did it to Robinson in 2015. They did it to her. They will do it to her successor. It’s what the DUP does.

Which is why I don’t understand her comments about the party no longer being the same party. She has been a senior figure since 2007 (when she joined the Executive) and leader for five years. I haven’t once heard her set out a strategy or ‘vision’ which could be considered at variance with traditional DUP thinking. I got no inkling on Tuesday that she had any intention of standing down. Indeed, had the party not moved against her – and brutally so – all the evidence suggested she was more than willing to remain as leader. When journalists and columnists wrote of internal problems she dismissed them out of hand.

Perhaps it’s closer to the truth to say that the DUP is exactly the same party, but she has changed. Maybe she has finally recognised the tatters and shattered promises that lie all around her. Maybe she recognises that she should have been stronger, bolder and more decisive during her leadership. Maybe, just maybe, she has some sympathy at last for the position in which David Trimble found himself when she and others left the UUP.

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Arlene Foster with Peter Robinson and Ian Paisley after defecting to the DUP from the UUP in 2004

I don’t know, because it was never clear, what her intended direction of travel was when she became leader. I wrote a profile at the time arguing she had the chance to bring something new to the DUP and broaden it enough to make it a comfortable place for most of unionism: drawing on lessons learned from her time in the UUP. The scale of her victory in 2016’s Assembly election certainly gave her the authority, but she never followed through. Perhaps circumstance consumed her plans. We’ll never know.

But, as I say, the DUP has never changed. I remember the daily abuse which was heaped on the UUP for having two members of Sinn Fein around the Executive table. I remember DUP pledges to destroy the Good Friday Agreement. I remember the talk of ‘quarantine’ before SF would ever be acceptable partners in government. None of which prevented the DUP cutting its own self-serving ‘ourselves alone’ arrangement with Sinn Fein and pretending it was ‘a better deal, a fair deal’. Hmm.

I remember the mockery the DUP made of the UCUNF project (when the UUP and Conservative Party created an election pact), with Paisley Jr, Sammy Wilson and others condemning Reg Empey for his stupidity in trusting the Conservatives to protect and promote unionism. None of which prevented the DUP from cutting its own self-serving deal with the Conservatives – only to be shafted and lobotomised by Hannibal Johnson and washed down ‘with some chianti and fava beans’. Hmm.

The DUP claimed to be the only party capable of maximising the unionist vote. Yet it was the DUP which created the circumstances and election which saw unionism lose its overall majority in the Assembly. The DUP insisted it was the only unionist party which could be trusted with the Union: yet was powerless to prevent Johnson from establishing (and voting through) a new line of separation between NI and GB. Hmm.

In the 2003 Assembly election the DUP eclipsed the UUP (by 20,000 votes and three seats) to become the largest unionist party. Within weeks, Arlene Foster, Jeffrey Donaldson and Norah Beare had defected to the DUP and, in so doing, kick-started a lengthy period of decline for their old party. Yet after 18 years of the DUP as the largest party, Sinn Fein has continued to grow; unionism is weakened in the Assembly; and the Union itself is at greater risk than at any time in the last century. Paisley didn’t stop that trend. Robinson didn’t stop it. Foster didn’t stop it.

I’m not persuaded that either Edwin Poots or Jeffrey Donaldson can stall, let alone reverse this trend. I’m not persuaded the DUP can ever again play the card, ‘Vote DUP to protect the Union, build unionism and stop Sinn Fein’. I’m not persuaded the DUP is actually capable of thinking beyond its own interests and pulling all elements of the pro-Union community in the same direction. Indeed, the tendency of the DUP to make too many potential unionists feel unwanted, disparaged, unequal, or even despised, is actually a threat to the future of the Union.

In 2003 unhappy UUP voters had a choice: the DUP. I wonder if, like Foster, they still think it’s the party they imagined it to be? If not, can the UUP win them back? Steve Aiken needs to rise to that challenge. NOW! He also needs to make sure his key players are behind him (which couldn’t be taken for granted between 1996-2003) and prepared to fight the DUP for votes and seats in every constituency. It’s what the DUP will do to the UUP.