DUP’s bagful of ‘yes’ concessions

DUP boss Ian Paisley is riding high after his Scottish victory. But the St Andrew’s Agreement paves the way for yet another realignment in Unionism. So argues JOHN COULTER, who analyses the new shift.By John Coulter

Ian Paisley’s blessing for the St Andrews Agreement has paved the way for the creation of a single Unionist Party. The DUP marched home from Scotland with a sequenced deal, including a massive peace dividend for the North as well as a capping on the hated rates, and saving the North’s elite grammar school sector.

The already election-battered C List Ulster Unionist team slipped back with nothing but a ticking off from the British Government about the UUP’s internet blog site.

In the space of a week, Paisley has turned a generation of yelling No and Never, into a bagful of Yes concessions for the Unionist family. In Unionist terms, DUP now stands for the Delivering Unionist Party, while UUP has taken on the mantel of the Utterly Useless Party.

In spite of all the speculation about factions within the Paisley camp, unease about Paisley’s meeting with Catholic Primate Sean Brady, and the prospect of the Big Man being nominated for First Minister on 24 November alongside Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness as Deputy, the DUP boss remains firmly in control of his party.

The UUP is trying to hit back at Paisley by claiming he has merely done what he accused former UUP boss David Trimble of doing ? preparing to enter a power-sharing Executive with republicans.

But in the Unionist community, the DUP is firmly entrenched on the moral high ground. Why? Because the Paisley camp recognised the alternative to the Stormont Assembly was joint authority of the North by London and Dublin ? try selling that to middle class unionism?

The real danger for the UUP comes next March when the Northern and Southern people could be asked in a referendum to endorse the St Andrews Agreement. The Paisley camp would love a Northern election only as it would finish off the Ulster Unionists once and for all.

The DUP would go into the election with the Scottish package of ‘political goodies’ as its big selling point. All the UUP can do is snipe at Paisleyism, and such is the internal discipline within the DUP there will never be a successful ‘Paisley Must Go’ campaign.

Perhaps the real victory for the DUP from Scotland was that Paisley has secured his legacy and power base within Unionism’s influential middle class.

Originally the champion of the Protestant working class, the DUP has demonstrated its ability in the November 2003 Assembly election and especially in the 2005 General Election that it can attract substantial support from the unionist middle class.

The DUP now has its own so-called Fur Coat Brigade, once the bastion of the ruling UUP. Ulster Unionist spin under current boss Reg Empey’s leadership was that these votes were on loan to the Paisley camp as a protest vote against former First Minister David Trimble.

But the Scottish deal ? and especially the concessions on rates and the grammar schools ? will ensure middle class unionism remains with the DUP.

If an election ? although unlikely ? was called in March 2007, at best the UUP could retain half of its current 24 seats; at worst, it could be reduced to between eight and 10 MLAs.

The only electoral hope the UUP has is to either grow the seeds which Paisley has sown and eventually merge with the DUP to form a single Unionist Party. Or else, it can try and re-group the centre ground by merging with the Alliance Party and revamped Northern Ireland Tories.

Another major bonus which Paisley can sell to the unionist electorate is that he can put the brakes on the axing of local councils. The present plan is for seven super councils, which would have a four-three nationalist bias.

However, a power-sharing Executive could implement either an 11 or 15 council structure ? less than the current 26 councils ? but which would keep the overall balance in the North in favour of unionism.

It also puts the Paisley camp in line to create a slimmer 72-seat Assembly rather than the cumbersome 108 MLA Stormont. This would leave four seats for each of the 18 constituencies. Given the DUP’s vote management abilities, this would still leave the party with 30 plus seats.

But Paisley also wants to secure his family legacy after he has either retired or died. While there has been much talk about factions within the DUP, the party is likely to remain intact as long as Paisley himself remains boss. Unlike Empey in the UUP, there will be no immediate – or any – leadership challenge to Paisley.

There are three factions in the DUP ? the modernisers around deputy leader Peter Robinson; the fundamentalists around South Antrim MP Rev William McCrea, and the traditional hard Right wing supporting MEP Jim Allister.
There has been considerable speculation North Belfast MP and MLA Nigel Dodds is Paisley?s personal choice as his successor.

Paisley Senior will also want to ensure his son, Ian Junior, is in a firm position to hold the party?s Westminster Jewel in the DUP Crown ? the North Antrim seat which the father has held comfortably with massive majorities since 1970.

The body language from Scotland was the political jig which Paisley wants to dance to is a deal which will keep his party united, yet finish off the rival UUP at the same time.

And on a personal front, Paisley will hope the success of re-establishing the power-sharing Executive on 27 March, 2007 will exorcise the 30-year-old ghosts of his failed coup in May 1977 when the United Unionist Action Council strike turned out to be a complete flop.

First published in the Irish Daily Star, on Thursday 19th October 2006

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty