David McIlveen: New DUP leader must have courage to clear the decks from party’s back office

If you had joined the DUP as I did in 1997 the thought of a career in politics could not be further from your mind.

Thursday, 29th April 2021, 8:05 am
David McIlveen wants power taken back from unelected advisors

With only two MPs at Westminster and 60 years of political dominance of the UUP in its various forms, the party’s positioning as a protest movement did not appear to be changing anytime soon.

There was one thing, however, that statisticians and algorithms did not account for which was the power of a united DUP leadership team that eschewed populism and refused to buckle under pressure when taking a principled stand.

Whilst being faced with political choices that would inevitably be divisive, the then leadership took a firm and decisive position to stick by its principles no matter what the cost and in doing so became the true voice of unionism.

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As someone who grew up in the DUP I have watched in dismay as the current leadership have substituted principle with populism, compassion with cruelty and determination with dysfunction.

It would be easy to lay all of the recent failures at the feet of one person, and undoubtedly Arlene Foster has to be held accountable as the figurehead of this dark chapter for the party.

However, in a role as demanding as party leader and first minister where one takes their counsel from is vital, and therefore unless a new leader has the courage and fortitude to clear the decks from the party’s back office, then sadly the future will just produce more of the same policies and poor decision-making.

The recent failures in DUP leadership can be summed up by three headline-grabbing events, but in reality these are just the surface of a much deeper problem.

The first is Brexit and the outworking of the Northern Ireland Protocol. With a large majority of unionists in favour of Brexit, supporting Vote Leave was not going to be an electoral liability to the DUP in itself; however, the political fallout nationally around this which put the party in a previously unthinkable position of power at Westminster created a very risky environment for the party to operate in.

With the Tory party under the cosh by the supply and demand agreement the DUP were in a perfect negotiating position to ensure that any post-Brexit smash and grab attempt on the Union could be thwarted by primary legislation.

In failing to achieve this and pursuing other benefits from Theresa May’s government, once the negotiations with Brussels started to unravel and the Irish Sea border became an inevitability the perception among unionism generally was that any opposition from the DUP to the protocol was piecemeal as ultimately the window of opportunity to block it had long passed and been missed.

The second failure was around the handling of RHI. This scandal laid bare in a very public way the dysfunctionality within the leadership machine of the party. Elected representatives could only watch in horror as advisors who had never faced the electorate were dragging the reputation of the party through the mud. This car crash, which would not have looked out of place in a political thriller, caused internal damage that under the current leadership was irreparable.

The third and probably most significant failure was highlighted by the debacle over the infamous Bobby Story funeral. Under normal circumstances this issue would have been unlikely to become as terminal as it did, however in a politically charged environment where the perception among unionists is that the DUP leadership is covering its eyes and ears while republicans are running amok served only to make the current status of the top team totally untenable.

The big question is how does the party recover from this failure of leadership? A few cosmetic changes are not going to be enough to win back the haemorrhaging of support during the Foster era. The decision making for the party must be made by those who have faced the electorate, this is what made the DUP unique from all others.

There is a place for advisors in any political system, but key decisions being autonomously made by unelected people is an affront to democracy.

Secondly the party has to start listening again. The rise to power of the DUP in the early 2000s came about by engaging with all parts of ideological unionism and sticking by the decisions they had made, not by the flip-flopping we have witnessed in recent years.

Finally the party has to start caring again. The DUP that I joined was a compassionate party and I know for some that might seem difficult to accept. However, as someone who grew up in its ranks, I witnessed first hand how as members we lifted each other up with the leader commanding the same respect as the person who makes the tea at the branch meetings.

This final point might seem somewhat naïve in light of 21st century politics, but the role of service in public life is the cornerstone of effective government and if on the back of this unfortunate run of events the DUP becomes a much kinder place to be then maybe the damage of the last six years can be saved just in the nick of time.

• David McIlveen is a former DUP MLA for North Antrim