The DUP: what went wrong?

The disaster which has befallen the DUP seems to be pretty significant. It was also a disaster which to be honest none of us really saw coming. I expected the DUP to loose a fair bit but I did not expect what appears to be unfolding in front of us: even if Dodds does hold the seat, this will have been a very significant blow for the DUP and one which they need to think very seriously about. Other unionists must, however, be careful at having too much schadenfreude as a damaged DUP may create problems at Stromont and in addition if the DUP learn from this debacle they may yet rebuild more easily than it currently seems. Against that is, unfortunately for the DUP, the simple fact that they have never been very good at introspection.

To look at what happened we could maybe work backwards, starting with the now infamous debate.Diane Dodds was woeful and no amount of post hoc DUP spinning was able to change that fact: compared to Jim Allister’s attacks on Sinn Fein, hers were poor and her attacks on Allister were nothing like as telling as his on her. It was to use my favoured warship analogy like the battle between the Italian heavy cruisers and the British battleships at Cape Matapan: there was inevitably only one winner. In addition Dodds’s inaccurate attack on the MEPs over the dairy industry was disastrous: the sight of DeBrun saying “Diane stop digging” was almost physically painful. Even more responsible than Dodds’ however, must be whichever assistant provided the incorrect information about the MEPs’ meeting DEFRA: surely they must be the first causality of the DUP’s post election analysis

Dodds’ attempts to attack DeBrun always fell short when placed beside the simple fact of none other than her husband sharing power with Ms. DeBrun’s friends in Stormont; meanwhile her attacks on Allister simply bounced off his armour. All the while Allister carried on remorselessly slamming the attacks into DeBrun and Dodds. As Greenflag noted sometime ago battlecruisers looked the part but when sent into action against battleships proved woefully inadequate. On this occasion Dodds was clearly the battlecruiser to Allisters slightly old fashioned but brutally effective battleship.

Of course that disaster was only the culmination of the problems. The campaign itself seemed very poorly fought: the slogans either forgettable or providing Allister or the UUP with additional ammunition against the DUP. The battle bus seemed a modern and effective idea but it appeared filled with DUP politicians rather than normal activists and I saw relatively little sign (apart from postering) of a concerted on the ground campaign by local activists. The DUP seemed happy to release statements on their web site as an alternative to on the ground campaigning. Overall the only reason why this was not the most poorly fought unionist campaign of recent years is the fact that the UUP had already blazed an uncatchable trail of incompetence with “Decent People Vote Unionist” and the complete uselessness of their last Westminster attempt. This election should show yet again that importing effective novel campaigning techniques from other countries or other regions of the UK does not mean that they will be effective here: to a very large extent all politics is local and neither on the ground nor in grand strategy is there any substitute for local knowledge and local workers.

Going back further of course was the poor choice of candidate: it must be stressed that Diane was not a dreadful candidate (at least not until the last week) but she was not brilliant; enough maybe to take on Nicholson but not against Allister. Against him the DUP do have potential champions his equal but they all stayed at home. That of course brings us back to the problems of selection all those months ago when the DUP kept failing to nominate a candidate. When they did they probably presumed that name recognition would help and it was not an unreasonable assumption. However, that assumption could not factor in the dynasty problems which fed upon the expenses and double jobbing scandals to make a famous name a liability.

The DUP already had a taste of the problem with the issue of office expenses in North Antrim; however, they had no defence at all as the expenses scandal hit. Robinson’s refusal to accept any form of error regarding the £30,000 food bill was an extremely grave mistake; a pretty unforgivable one for a shrewd tactician like him. In addition the details of their lifestyle were very damaging. I am sorry to play the man but it sounds appallingly in your face nouveaux riche for a society such as ours which is actually pretty conservative and not very supportive of extravagant displays of personal wealth, even less if gained at tax payers’ expense and doubly so in a time of economic recession.

These are problems which the DUP are going to have to take very seriously: their answer during the election campaign was to try to point to Jim Allister’s vastly less extravagant expenses. If they continue with this maximum attack answer to the problem they will simply compound it. Humility and apologising are, however, something which the DUP have never been very good at. In addition when Robinson did agree to phase out double jobbing it looked like a panicked response to David Cameron’s proposals which probably did more harm than good and sat very ill with his sending HMS Warspite in the form of Arlene Foster to hold the Fermanagh council by election.

This set of disasters: the dynasty building added to the expenses and the double jobbing was a pretty unique mix which is unlikely to be repeated again. However, the issue of choosing a poor campaign message is a problem which could recur. Once a party has lost its contact with the grass roots and listens to frighteningly clever types in smart suits sitting in Stormont, the problems really begin. The UUP did this in the past and at times I have almost seen Simon Hamilton looking like the frightfully affable, desperately clever and totally useless Stephen King; maybe an unfair analogy (and Hamilton unlike King is an elected politician), but could there be a certain resonance?

Overriding all the issues of poor campaign, fairly poor candidate etc., however, is the issue of the current position and direction of the DUP. The DUP may truly believe that republicans have changed; they may really think that the deal they have negotiated is as good as it gets for the unionist population. However, they have reckoned without the simple fact that for years they told us that they would not share power with Sinn Fein and unrepentant terrorists. There is still a significant constituency of unionists who are genuinely opposed to the leaders of the IRA’s army council being in power over them. These people would rather see London rule (even with Dublin involvement) than be ruled by those who were involved in the murder of their kith and kin. That is still a position common amongst unionists: that much seems pretty clear. Republicans can bay all they like that unionists cannot decide who represents their community and they are of course correct. However, if a significant proportion of unionists do not wish their representatives to share power with SF and are willing in the process to forego power for themselves, it is difficult to see how the DUP can regain those votes whilst remaining in power sharing with republicans.

The DUP succoured these people: indeed after the Belfast Agreement they were their champions; whilst the DUP have changed many unionists have not and I am most dubious that they will. I take you back to the murders of the two soldiers and the policeman. Remember the adulation for Martin McGuinness’ statement? Many unionists, however, feel that this is a man who (like Gerry Adams) can tell lies as the rest of us breathe: as such his words are completely valueless. I remember when I pointed this out I received many brickbats from republicans, liberal unionists and indeed some DUPers. However, very many unionist commentators held their counsel and I suspect many in the wider community would have quietly agreed: certainly Alex Kane (from a very different unionist analysis to myself) said much the same. The problem was that as McGuinness said his piece, lauded by Robinson; many will have remembered what McGuinness had done and indeed what Robinson used to say about him. Far too much blood has been spilled for that to be forgotten and whilst political power may wash white for the DUP it has no such effect for many in this community.

The DUP never factored into their calculations the possibility of an organised attack from their right wing: they, the DUP, are the hard line unionist party, they seem to feel that they have a monopoly on such. I am sure they expected some defectors but not in the organised fashion with which they have been presented and certainly not lead by a serious political heavyweight. The responsibility for the creation of their nemesis is of course close to home. Jewish folklore contains the concept of the Golem a being created from imamate matter. Amongst the most famous golems is the Golem of Prague created by Rabbi Low to defend the Jews of Prague: this Golem then ended up being a menace to its creator. Peter Robinson of course reactivated Jim Allister. Robinson no doubt thought he could control Allister and that he was preferable as a European candidate to Willie McCrea last time round. I suspect Robinson remembers and regrets every part of that first trip to see Allister: does he remember what he wore? the crunch of the gravel on Allister’s drive as he got out of the car?

Although Robinson must have known that there would be defectors after he went into government, he is the man who created Allister and he is the one who is the ultimate architect of his own dilemma as he helped destroy Trimble, he brought in Allister and now having done a Trimble he faces Allister. In many ways this is an old fashioned morality tale. However, the story is not over. I have always argued he is a tactician not a strategist and I would further argue that the last few years have shown him trying to do strategy and leaving no one to do the tactics; hence, the utterly disorganised and frequently counter productive response to the TUV and Allister. However, Robinson still holds many cards and people have written him off before: the future is far from clear. However, the DUP have some very serious thinking to do.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.