Telling a new story

Ian Paisley will stand down as leader of the DUP in a few weeks. This will give the next generation in the DUP, those he groomed, the chance to take control of the largest Unionist party at an important juncture. An organisation is vulnerable when it attempts a generational transition even as smooth a one as the DUP appears to be managing. Beyond the everyday and strategic politics, the DUP has two key challenges, communication and organisation. It is the nature of the communication challenge that this thread will focus. Paisley’s departure – gain and loss

The replacement of Paisley as leader solves a number of immediate issues for the DUP. However, it is not all gain. Although his skills have declined with age and the family had put something of a protective shield around him, Paisley was the party’s great communicator, most especially to the base and in particular to the evangelicals. Leader-elect Robinson has publicly acknowledged that no one person can be Paisley’s replacement and recognises the need for a corporate leadership. This is what you say when a party leader stands down. It has the effect of smoothing the feathers of rivals but it is also the truth.

However, the DUP is far from a communicative desert. It must be acknowledged that Robinson built the headquarters team and honed the message of the DUP’s political campaigns, most especially post-Belfast Agreement. The party also has a cross-section of able senior people who while they may not match Paisley’s many skills, collectively are strong. However, they cannot match Paisley’s immense emotional intelligence of the DUP base in particular and the Unionist community in general.

Politics and emotion

Given the importance of emotion in the political thinking of the electorate, it is perhaps too easy to exaggerate the importance of reason and rationality in dialogue with the electorate. It is simplistic to suppose that the DUP can refute the emotional appeals of the TUV and others with reason and empirical arguments.

Political ideas and their promotion are a form of advertising. It is to emotion that successful advertising focuses. The key to accessing emotion is the construction of a narrative. A narrative is the story people develop based upon your actions and statements (The Political Brain and this Radio Four debate ‘Jackanory politics’ for a full examination of narrative). Post St Andrews, it is in the development of a narrative that the DUP has its greatest weakness.

The fair deal narrative

This narrative was designed to communicate the transition of the DUP from a position of total opposition to one of engagement to achieve change. It was to provide expression to the mood of the Unionist community that it was not opposed to making an agreement but viewed the Belfast Agreement and its interpretation as fundamentally imbalanced. It was also to be a realistic promise. It was not promising a victory. As a message it worked, contributing to the DUP overhauling the UUP.

However, after the 2005 Westminster election it became a half-forgotten narrative. Its half-forgotten status was an example of how the DUP began to view its position as unassailable. Depending on your perspective, this led to an arrogance or malaise within the party. The result was a failure to engage with the party grassroots and broader community.

After the 2003 Assembly election at party events and conferences some stress was placed upon the fact that the negotiations would involve hard decision-making and realistic expectations. After 2005 such caveats or cautionary warnings seemed to vanish from the DUP’s message. While the flaws in St Andrews would have led to some opposition anyway, the lack of preparation contributed to the party’s difficulties. Feelings of relief and complacency developed with the lack of an explicit electoral backlash (despite some warning signs) in the Assembly election and the lack of negative feedback from the constituency office network or public events e.g. parades after the decision to share power. It was not until Dromore that any re-think was thought necessary.

Overall, the fair deal narrative has run its course. However, the DUP’s new narrative needs be built upon it as jarring narratives do not work.

Post St Andrew narratives

After St Andrews the DUP has jumped about between different and sometimes conflicting narratives. These have generally not worked and in this void the narratives of opponents have gained more ground. With changes in key personnel and the significant distraction of governance the issue has not been seriously addressed.


The first narrative the DUP adopted was the victory narrative. The principal argument for such a positive interpretation of St Andrews was that the UUP had failed to sell the Belfast Agreement well. While the UUP certainly did not handle their post-agreement phase well hard sell does not make up for an imperfect product. St Andrews was less imperfect than the Belfast agreement but it was not credible to sell it as perfect.

The victory narrative had a number of flaws. It jarred with the previous promise of a fair deal. It jarred with people’s assessment of Unionism’s position. In general terms the Unionist community was not expecting a full reversal of the past anti-Unionist direction of policy. Thus any claims to the contrary would be viewed with scepticism. Additionally, the 12 apostles’ mini-rebellion undermined this. If senior members weren’t willing to swallow the line neither will the broader community.

It jarred with people’s assessment of Nationalism. In general terms the Unionist community views nationalism as able (many go further than that). Thus a claim that Nationalism has agreed to a Unionist victory is not viewed as credible. Nationalism being made to concede is sellable but not their defeat and their agreement to a defeat.

A victory narrative is also a highly risky one. At its core it risks being interpreted as the struggles are over and everything is going to be fine from here on. This narrative cannot cope with setbacks.

As confidence is an issue in Unionism there is a strong temptation to try and re-build it all in one go but a gradual process is more likely to succeed. Also if the DUP had actually delivered on its confidence building package then there would have been more a credible basis to pursue this line. The direction of policy could have been presented as more Unionist friendly.

Unfulfilled prophecy

In preparation for devolution the DUP began to push the battle a day narrative. Essentially, this was a reassurance narrative – “Don’t worry about us agreeing to devolution. We haven’t gone soft. The arena is changing but the fight goes on”. It is certainly factual that the struggle between Unionism and Nationalism isn’t over. However, when this did not occur it became the unfulfilled prophecy. Furthermore, the ‘chuckle brothers’ act was a complete contradiction to expectations. Those who had accepted the reassuring message would become doubtful, distrustful or resentful. It also didn’t seem to link with the ‘victory’ narrative, yesterday we won but tomorrow we start all over again.

Delivery and destinations

There have been two narratives that could contribute to a new narrative for the DUP. The main one is devolution is delivering. However it is insufficient. It is almost seen to be avoiding the central questions that many Unionists are asking in the post-St Andrews context. The message gap it represents explains the lack of impact it has made. It needs to be remembered that apart from the Victims Commissioners mess, devolution has been running pretty smoothly from a Unionist perspective. The lack of politicisation of the Unionist electorate also hampers the power of this message. Their lack of policy awareness often means that they don’t recognise a success when it is achieved. The ‘them and us’ mentality means that a proposal that is for the benefit of all in Northern Ireland also has limited return.

The other interesting phraseology that has popped up in a number of DUP statements is ‘a fair deal, not a final destination’. Again it is an accurate description of the situation and should be an element of any future narrative. However, it is more of the sub-text that the main narrative communicates rather than the public/actual message. Its use has been intermittent and there is a sense it is being toyed with rather than adopted.

Alternative narratives

The DUP’s failure to develop a successful and sustainable post-deal narrative has lead to three developments.

First, there is the ‘co-opted’ narrative. The DUP began to slip into the process narrative – there is no alternative etc. It does not help convince people that you are different from Trimble and the UUP when you sound like them.

Second, the ‘chuckle brothers’ narrative, started by the media but assiduously promoted by the UUP and TUV, filled the narrative void. It is essentially a ‘self-interest’ narrative – the DUP don’t care about you and your concerns; they just want to enjoy power and its trappings. While it is potentially harmful to both the DUP and SF it has had much greater bite in the Unionist community.

The ‘chuckle brothers’ became a gateway to the most harmful alternative narrative of all, the ‘snouts in the trough’ narrative. The protracted Sweeney/Causeway debacle and the exposure of the personal Paisley Jnr wish-list made many believe it was for highly personal and self-interested reasons that Paisley had been persuaded to accept the deal.

What questions are being asked?

There are three key questions that sections of the Unionist community are asking in the post-St Andrews context.

Why did we have 30-35 years of conflict?
Why did the DUP take the decision to share power (and so quickly)?
Where is Unionism going from here?

The first is of particular significance because of the present make-up of the Unionist vote. The security vote is probably disproportionate in the make-up of Unionist voters. These are the people who served in the Army, Police and Prison Service during the Troubles. The civic mindedness that led them to engage in public service also means they are more likely to vote (and their families). The DUP should be well aware of the power of this section of the electorate. Their electoral growth was partially driven when the traditionally UUP-supporting police section of this vote moved to them because of the Patten proposals. Of particular importance to them is the battle to define the past. Unionism needs to engage in the debate of the past not simply be reactive to republican re-writing.

It is safe to say the vast majority did not put on a uniform to patrol dreary and potentially dangerous streets with the aim of putting an IRA Leader into power (even power with strong checks and balances). The narrative through most of the troubles was the defeat of terrorism rather than a political deal. They need a satisfactory answer about what their service was for and what it achieved.

The second is primarily a product of the 2005-07 inactivity and the speed of devolution post-election. The failure to properly engage during these periods needs to be acknowledged. There is a chunk who did ultimately expect power-sharing but slower i.e. longer testing period. The degree of risk the DUP was willing to take staggered them. The evangelical section needs special attention in this element. It cannot be engaged through the mainstream media it needs a bespoke approach in terms of events and message.

The first two must be addressed otherwise they will not listen to the third answer. The third answer is the new narrative. It will be a key determinant to the future direction of the DUP and both the party and Unionism’s future electoral performances.

New opportunity

The change in leadership provides the DUP with a new opportunity to give clear consistent answers to these questions. In the next few months it needs to focus on the first two questions and to develop ‘Unionist’ answers not adopt process-speak. Its answers need to accept the legitimacy of concerns and doubts, not be arrogant or dismissive even though it is through Jim Allister’s voice that these are most often expressed. This will prepare the ground for the new narrative which will answer the third. If the ground is not prepared it will fall as flat as the other DUP attempts. This new narrative could begin at the party’s conference later in the year.

It is important to answer these questions not because the bulk of voters are likely to go elsewhere, despite the electoral kick in the stones at Dromore. Dromore was something of a perfect electoral storm. The greater and more fundamental risk for Unionism is apathy. The unimpressive Unionist turnout in the last Assembly elections is a pointer to this. The lack of red hot telephones in constituency offices was another. Why no explosion of anger? For some of the disenchanted the DUP was Unionism’s last hope. So their perception of DUP failure led to a sense of hopelessness rather than anger at the decision to share power.

What should a new narrative aim to do?

The new narrative must try to do the following:
• The old narrative as starting point – the new narrative must not jar with the fair deal narrative.
• Be positive – Power-sharing means future messages cannot rely so heavily on negativity or bogeymen (real or imagined).
• Be durable –This narrative must be built to last. It should be expected to carry the DUP from now until the next Assembly/Local government elections through both the European and Westminster elections. It must be able to cope with political advances and set-backs.
• Reassure and re-engage with party support – it should be able to re-engage with the disillusioned.
• Provide a role – it needs to start to give ordinary Unionists a proactive role.
• Promote growth – It must plant the seeds for Unionist electoral growth. This is a long-term strategic challenge for Unionism. This task will not be completed in the short-term but it is something that must be included.
• Be meaningful – It must be a Unionist message. The UUP provides the perfect warning of meaningless narratives/messages e.g. ‘Simply British’ .
• Go for verbs – The best slogans involve action as US pollster Dick Morris argues in political messages verbs beat adjectives.
• Actions and words – Don’t just develop a good slogan. Think about what is likely to occur in the next few years, ensure no predictable big event will discredit it.

The balancing act between all these elements is not easy, but political message management never is.

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