Sam McBride: DUP's electoral insulation could be a false comfort
Two years ago, Arlene Foster was raucously hailed like a conquering empress when she arrived at her first party conference as DUP leader.
Though she didn’t know it at the time, it was the zenith of her popularity. Four weeks later the cash for ash scandal erupted and rapidly led to her removal as first minister.
At last year’s party conference, though weakened by an appalling Assembly election result in the wake of the scandal, Mrs Foster was able to use the DUP’s stunning position after the subsequent Westminster election to project an image of her party wielding unparalleled power and influence.
The de facto deputy prime minister and the government’s chief whip were present to make speeches, a feat which would have been unthinkable for much of the history of a party which was steeped in anti-establishment ideology.
Over the last year, the party has been dogged by crises and embarrassing revelations.
In February, the party leadership came to the verge of a deal with Sinn Fein to restore Stormont but couldn’t sell it. That was followed by Ian Paisley’s suspension from Parliament for accepting lavish holidays from a foreign government.
And for months the RHI Inquiry has exposed the myth of the DUP as a happy family, exposing feuding, nepotism, alleged drunkenness, incompetence, greed and backbiting.
For the second year in a row, Arlene Foster has refused to speak to News Letter readers, declining to do the traditional sit-down interview ahead of the party conference.
No reason was given for that decision but there has been internal DUP concern about Mrs Foster’s tone in interviews and her ability to face difficult questions.
This year there are still the trappings of the DUP’s powerful position, with Tory big beasts in attendance at the conference.
But there is the increasing concern among some unionists that the DUP’s influence with the government is not as substantial as the party boasted.
For more than a year the DUP has been explicit that it was prepared to accept almost any form of Brexit so long as it involved Northern Ireland being treated the same as the rest of the UK – what Mrs Foster described as her “blood red line”.
And yet the party has been unable to convince the prime minister of sticking to the one red line it outlined, with Theresa May’s Brexit deal setting out the prospect of Northern Ireland diverging from the rest of the UK and staying closer to the EU in key areas of regulation.
The party now faces myriad dilemmas with decisions over coming months about whether to bring down the government and risk Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister, whether to replace Arlene Foster as leader, how to respond to the looming RHI Inquiry report and the question of whether it can sell a compromise with Sinn Fein in order to restore Stormont.
Many unionists are reassured to see the DUP in the position where it finds itself, recalling how other avowedly unionist prime ministers have been prepared to disregard their views.
For those people, the DUP is now a constitutional handbrake. Even if that handbrake fails over Brexit, it will not necessarily result in electoral punishment for the DUP because in those circumstances those voters are likely to see Northern Ireland’s place as being all the more precarious and therefore see an increased need for a strong unionist voice.
But while the DUP may be electorally insulated, the real damage could be to the Union itself, with the combination of Brexit, the exposure of DUP behaviour in government and Northern Ireland’s farcical governance vacuum leading to soft nationalists and some of the constitutionally unaligned becoming increasingly vocal in stating that they are now looking to Dublin for a solution.