The DUP at 50: The Conservative Party has adapted to secularisation and so can we, says Sammy Wilson
DUP veteran Sammy Wilson is proud to have played a leading role in the DUP over 50 years – and believes the Conservative Party shows how it might progress in a more secular age.
The East Antrim MP, now 68, was with the party “since its formation”, beginning his elected career at Belfast City Council in 1981.
“I have seen the transition of the party that was really one of protest and opposition to the leading party in Northern Ireland,” he said. ”And I enjoyed the role of protest and opposition very much.”
The DUP opposed the emerging IRA campaign and the initial power-sharing executive of 1973, which in his view moved away from traditional democratic principles of “majority rule”.
They also opposed reforms to policing and moves which “involved greater involvement of Dublin” in NI.
He added: ”I think there was a significant section of the Conservative government that would have been quite happy to be rid of Northern Ireland. There was a real danger that this prediction by Rev Ian Paisley would have happened without our protest.”
However, when it became the largest party, choices had to be made and it had to accept the responsibility of government.
One of the big achievements, he said, was pressing Sinn Fein to sign up to policing in 2007 – before resurrecting the then suspended Assembly to go into government with republicans.
The period when Rev Ian Paisley and then Peter Robinson held the first minister post, 2007-16, were, “the golden years of the Assembly” he claimed.
He acknowledged the affectionate working relationship between Rev Ian Paisley and Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuiness as deputy first minister was a key factor for both the DUP leaders.
While Arlene Foster also had her own achievements, he noted, she “inherited” problems such as the hugely damaging RHI inquiry.
He acknowledged the recent “difficulties” in which the leadership passed rapidly from Mrs Foster to Edwin Poots and then on to Sir Jeffrey Donaldson have not helped the DUP’s popularity.
“Jeffrey has a massive task ahead but he has established some calm within the party and has a good rapport with the public,” he added.
Regarding the party’s socially conservative roots and the challenge of a rapidly secularising society, he said that few people vote for a party on a single issue, and he is not alarmed about future votes.
“Just look at the Conservative Party. It has people who share the same views that I do on some of these moral issues and others who think my views are bonkers. But as a party they are still able to appeal across the political spectrum.”
The recent LucidTalk poll put the party, startlingly, with the support of only 13% of voters. He is sceptical about how accurate that is but said he is not complacent.
“Over the last 50 years I have seen the party’s fortunes rise and plummet and bad elections and good elections. There is not a political party in the country which does not face the same thing.”
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