The unbuckling of the Bible Belt…

Or, when the chuckles had to stop 2. Occasional commenter, The Watchman follows up with the second part (first instalment here) of his two part article on the ongoing low level attrition between the DUP and the TUV, which, he argues is gradually chipping away at the former heartlands of the DUP, partly, he reads it because of a strategic decision by the party’s leadership to cut them adrift.By The Watchman

“Let me make it unequivocally clear that the DUP will never enter into government with IRA/Sinn Fein.

“Note carefully – this is free from any ifs or buts or turnings.

“To enter into government with the terrorists of IRA/Sinn Fein would be treason. Of that we will never be guilty.”

Ian Paisley, Election Platform, Belfast News Letter, 4 May 2005, cited in Michael Kerr’s “Transforming Unionism: David Trimble and the 2005 General Election”

The DUP’s first leadership election seems likely to turn on the brokerage of a deal between the Robinson and Dodds families for the new management of the clan. Presently, it appears that Peter Robinson will be elected leader by acclamation. Thanks to the party’s centralised democracy, we will be denied the chance to see whether Nigel Dodds might have beaten him in a ballot of the entire membership. But Dodds can wait: there is every prospect that the DUP’s fortunes may not be improved by Paisley’s departure.

To understand why, we need to go back to May 2007. Once everyone had stopped blinking in astonishment at Paisley and McGuinness leading the oddest government imaginable, it was as if Northern Ireland had reached its own “End of History” moment. There was assumed to be universal support for the new Executive. Received wisdom, of course, is usually wrong and it ignored the fact that many unionists have long voted for the DUP precisely in order to keep Sinn Fein out of power for ever. There is no way of knowing just how many people feel betrayed, although their existence in untold thousands is beyond dispute (as many in the DUP now privately realise). The DUP’s capitulation, far greater than any ever executed by the Ulster Unionists, left such people without any voice in the Assembly.

Even after Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, he would often be pictured in his combat fatigues. Although he was no longer the revolutionary in the state he controlled, he felt the need to appear to be such. The DUP did not even bother to give the false impression of fighting their old enemies from the inside. Instead the new ministers gave every impression of putting their feet up. The notorious chuckling of the new First Minister when he appeared with the man he called “Deputy” caught the headlines, but this only concealed deeper DUP laziness and arrogance.

Godson’s biography of Trimble reports advice given by Sean O’Callaghan that the UUP needed to continue fighting republicans within the confines of the new institutions. David Trimble, Godson notes, did not take this advice. Likewise, the DUP, an army that had just stormed a citadel, was happy to sit back and enjoy the spoils of victory. It seemed that the party and leader were so happy luxuriating in power that neither knew how to utilise that power to rough up the Shinners within the institutions.

So what of the future First Minister? Robinson’s performances at the Departments of Regional Development and Finance have impressed many. Within the party, his organisational ability has helped to turn the DUP into a formidable electoral machine. He has a track record of dominance within Castlereagh Council, where the DUP has been the largest unionist party for 27 years. But Robinson is also seen as a cold Machiavellian figure and a control freak who is more respected than liked. He is the head of the modernising wing of the DUP and is suspected of working towards a deal with Sinn Fein for a number of years despite public denials. He is neither a Free Presbyterian nor an Orangeman, and his decision not to align himself personally with either of these two important blocs may prove telling if his leadership does run into trouble. For these reasons Robinson cannot and will not inherit the unquestioning loyalty that his former leader enjoyed.

Pre-Dromore, the DUP was sanguine about the TUV. If it had been concerned then the adept micro-managers in Dundela Avenue would not have forced a by-election when Tyrone Howe’s seat fell vacant. After all, the UUP is no electoral threat to the DUP. Instead the DUP saw the chance to grab an easy seat from the UUP and strangle the infant TUV. It singularly failed to achieve either, despite having fought an energetic battle in Jeffrey Donaldson’s back yard. Even allowing for all the normal provisos, the size of the TUV vote in a median unionist town startled many observers.

Dromore is also the first evidence of the unbuckling of the old DUP base with its traditionalist element, upon which the party was built, disengaging amid considerable bitterness. Robinson, widely held to be the secret architect of the DUP’s deal with Sinn Fein, is probably the last man capable of luring back this bloc of untold thousands. The DUP’s response to criticism has been to scaremonger about a rampaging Joint Authority bogeyman if a deal had not been done. This is a daft tactic and it plays spectacularly badly with the party’s former supporters. Its continued use simply underlines the distance the DUP is felt to have travelled in its pursuit of power at any price: was the Ian Paisley of old ever troubled by blackmail?

Losing this support is not necessarily fatal. But the strategic decision taken by Paisley to cut loose of his old supporters will help to determine the party’s electoral fortunes in the future. Despite its success in Dromore, the UUP’s share of the vote actually fell from its derisory 2005 level. The DUP may well choose to replenish lost support from the feeble UUP. The price of gaining territory in this centre ground battle is likely to be slippage to Allister’s TUV, which seems poised to capitalise on discontent in the DUP‘s old rural heartlands. Allister has already concluded that a position to the right of the DUP constitutes a perfectly viable platform, something this writer pointed out on Slugger back in June 2005.

In the decade since the Belfast Agreement, unionism has seen realignment with the decline of the UUP and the rise of the DUP. But there is reason to suppose that the process of realignment will continue. The UUP is unlikely to be a serious player and seems locked in decline. The main threat to the DUP’s dominance comes from Jim Allister and those around him. No one should underestimate the problems that this will cause for the DUP.