DUP: a bubbling split?

Dr John Coulter is a Northern political columnist with the Irish Daily Star. Here he argues that there is a bubbling split in the coalition which underpins the DUP. Though there is nothing publicly apparent as yet, he believes it is an internal timebomb with all the signs set for a politically bloody internal civil war between Paisley’s controlling fundamentalists and Robinson’s modernisers.By John Coulter

All is not a happy ship within the HMS DUP with much grumblings of treason, plot and potential civil war which could publicly split the Paisleyites asunder in a re-run of the rival UUP’s Ulster Unionist Council bashes.

The Provos are sufficiently united to deliver decommissioning, but the real fear is the DUP will not be able to maintain its internal party unity long enough to bring about devolution.

Had deputy leader Peter Robinson led the Leeds Castle delegation instead of Ian Paisley senior, then the historic deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein would most likely have been done and dusted within the 34-hour timeframe.

However, it seems not only has the DUP stolen the rival UUP’s political clothes, but the Paisleyites have also inherited the disease of internecine fragmentation within their ruling executive.

Just as dissident strength within the UUP’s ruling 900-delegate Ulster Unionist Council bubbled at just over the 40 per cent level, there have been suggestions that Robinson’s hard core support on the ruling DUP executive runs at around 40 per cent, with the Big Man’s fundamentalist faction still calling the shots with the remaining 60 per cent.

But the DUP will have to face a fundamental question – does it put Ulster first, or party unity first? It has also been suggested the modernising Robinson faction may have the balance of power within the DUP’s Assembly group.

The last thing Dr Paisley wants is that having dispelled all the rumour-mongering about his health in recent weeks, he now has to prevent his party descending into a public internal war of words.

Public unity within the DUP executive is holding – but only by a fingernail. The solution for the DUP would be to return David Trimble as First Minister on an agreed unionist ticket, influential North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds to become Speaker of the House at Stormont, and Big Ian to be given the honorary position of President or Leader of the Assembly.

The number crunching is also an indicator in the potentially bubbling feud within the DUP over the deal. One of the most influential groupings is the 33-strong DUP Assembly group. It has been suggested by UUP sources that deputy leader Peter Robinson has 11 (although NIO sources put this as high as 13 MLAs), with 16 confirmed in the Paisley camp and around four floaters.

Trimble can count on the loyalty of nearly all of his 24 MLAs. The electorate will crucify the DUP at the polls if it does not secure a deal to bring back a legislative Assembly.

If Paisley stalls on a deal, then Robinson’s pro-deal faction will have no other choice but to join with Trimble’s pro-Agreement group to form a pan-unionist front. This will get the Assembly up and running, leaving the fundamentalists isolated at Stormont.

The only problem is, this will see a fatal split within the DUP and a further realignment within unionism. The Big Man’s visit to Dublin has not only rewritten Paisleyite history, it has also thrown the welly boot of political progress firmly into the republican camp.

After the Leeds Castle talks, the pressure was on the DUP to deliver a deal by Christmas. Paisley’s jaunt to meet the Irish government was a treble wammie, which in the current game of political ping-pong has given the Doc the upper hand once again.

Firstly, it was a public concession to Dublin. Whilst Paisley has visited the South before in his capacity as Moderator of his fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, this was his first official visit as leader of the DUP.

Secondly, it was to emphasise to public and pundits that in spite of all the gossip and admissions about his health, he is still in charge of the party he founded in 1971.

And thirdly, it was to further prepare the ever-grumbling fundamentalist grassroots within the DUP that they need to prepare themselves for a new Judgement Day – the day when they will have to do face-to-face business with Sinn Fein.

There is no doubting a deal has been done between the two rival sectarian camps. The jungle drums are beating out an ever louder rhythm that a major public split in the Paisleyite ranks is also inevitable.

Currently, the Paisleyite pot is bubbling strongly, but a generation of internal discipline is preventing it from boiling over. If the DUP opted for party unity and ‘stuff Stormont’, then the Governments’ Plan B would be for joint authority of the North between Dublin and Westminster.

At the same time, joint authority would also give Northern Westminster MPs a limited say in the running of the Republic, with DUP and UUP MPs establishing a Maryfield Secretariat-style ‘caretaker government’ in Leinster House.

Sinn Fein MPs, meanwhile, would also argue for speaking rights in the Dail and Senate. Health providing, it is only a matter of time before Big Paisley addresses the Dail either as Stormont First Minister, Leader of the Assembly, or President of the Unionist Secretariat.

But will the sight of Big Paisley addressing the Dail give the fundamentalists a large dose of political indigestion, or will it have them rushing out of the party to politically vomit?