More than a month ago Chris Donnelly produced a very interesting article here on slugger about how the DUP had (unlike SF) failed to prepare its grass roots for the realities of power sharing. It was a well written and well argued piece but it did in some ways leave out the point that the DUP had gained its dominant position within unionism precisely because it denounced the UUP’s attempts to prepare and implement power sharing. Hence, it had inadequate time to prepare its new supporters let alone its traditional base for the compromises ahead. The idea that the DUP should have prepared its base for the compromises ahead was, however, an excellent one and Peter Robinson openly acknowledged this. Unfortunately for republicans such as Mr. Donnelly, I would suggest that Nelson McCausland’s appointment as culture secretary and his recent cul de sac remarks, are actually an example of the DUP doing exactly what Mr. Donnelly suggested: preparing the base for further compromises ahead, as well as trying to regain some lost support.
It is most interesting that in most of the recent discussions about the devolution of policing and justice there had been less from the DUP about the necessary community confidence and more about who was to pay for P&J. Now, however, Peter Robinson has apparently outlined for Gordon Brown how he will measure community confidence by talking to the party leaders in Stormont. Once this community confidence appeared to be dependent on the DUP deciding itself that there was enough confidence. Now, however, other parties within Stormont seem to need to be involved; though Robinson seems to be pointedly leaving the TUV vote out of that equation by mentioning only parties within Stormont.
It is in this context of preparing for devolution of P&J along with the reaction to the European election that Nelson McCausland’s recent remarks should be interpreted. McCausland is an extremely intelligent individual and although he may have little insight into the thinking of nationalists and republicans he must have known that his interview would spark considerable anger form that quarter. Many of the phrases such as cul de sac and the comments about different sports sounded as if they had been carefully prepared in advance and not prepared to avoid offence. The fact that he was so vociferous and seemed to have carefully calculated his words to show how he intended to remain unknowing about both the Irish language and the GAA was, I submit, designed to do a number of things: On a short term basis it was to try to disguise the simple fact that McCausland was meeting with the dread Ruane and two Irish ministers in the RoI. On a longer term basis it can be presented as a hardening of line (not that Gregory Campbell was exactly liberal) after the European election and a move to reassure and win back some of the base. In addition bizarre as this may sound to nationalists the ability to have a culture minister who can say such things may be a way of the DUP going out to spread the devolution gospel. After all they can argue with some justification that no Westminster appointed minister could say such things.
All this may, in part, be an attempt to set the necessary mood music for P&J devolution. The DUP may feel that bashing the Irish language and the GAA and demonstrating that the DUP are in control and have changed after the European election will help them in selling P&J devolution. Further delaying the P&J issue as was announced on Friday may also, by annoying SF, demonstrate the DUP’s claimed ascendancy; though it may also demonstrate genuine anxiety about the issue.
This is of course a very zero sum game strategy which may well not be what Donnelly and others were arguing for. However, having built their recent electoral success (until Europe) on being the hardest line of all and on the basis that they were going to and then did defeat SF, it is difficult to completely change the narrative overnight. Instead the DUP seem to be going back to what they have repeatedly done over recent years: loudly announce their victories over SF and then just possibly compromise. They can speak very loudly and carry a (fairly) small stick. However, all these strategies, useful as the DUP may feel them to be may not really reassure the base. As Mr. Donnelly suggested SF prepared their supporters for their movements over years and had no single organised opposition to their plan. The DUP has, however, come very late to the realisation that it has not prepared the ground adequately and already has its nemesis in place.
There is also a cultural problem for the DUP. Nationalism / republicanism has recently had relatively few splits apart from within the actual paramilitary groups and even they have had less of the internecine divisions which characterise loyalist terrorists. The SDLP has had some splits as have SF. However, the dominant group tends to quickly establish itself. Unionism by contrast is absolutely riven with splits: there have been almost innumerable different unionist parties and within the UUP there has frequently been open warfare. That the DUP avoided splits is probably a testament to the fact that for years it was so dominated by Dr. Paisley: once it enlarged and his influence waned it began splitting. In this context of splitting preparing the grass roots for a radical change in direction is quite difficult as the party may well split before the change is completed: as indeed happened to the DUP.
One could go a bit overboard and argue that this tendency to split within unionism may in part be associated with Protestant denominations. These seem to split with extreme regularity: there are multiple forms of Presbyterian (at least four), three sorts of Methodist and innumerable small denominations. As such Prods are extremely used to splitting and to changing their leaders rather than their leaders telling them to change position.
I have no doubt that Chris Donnelly’s advice was wise. However, I suspect that the DUP come to the position too late, have inherent problems in implementing such a strategy and also have the nature of the unionist community working against them. Whether or not they can overcome these hurdles remains to be seen.