DUP: tides and momentum

I blogged a few weeks ago that the DUP ship seemed to be steadying, albeit at a much lower position in the water than it was previously. Since that there have been a couple of additional holes have appeared: one from the latest revelations by the BBC’s Newsline; the other, larger one, from Robinson’s rather ill judged and highly ill tempered response. These wounds themselves are unlikely to be fatal. However, it is almost impossible to escape the conclusion that whatever the outcome for the DUP from the Westminster elections, high tide for DUP support has passed, and some time ago at that.To go back briefly to the 2005 Westminster and 2007 Assembly elections, the DUP were at their high water mark, capturing all the unionist majority seats except for North Down where Peter Weir was defeated by an almost 5,000 vote margin and of course South Belfast where Jimmy Spratt lost to Alasdair McDonnell by just over 1,000 votes. They might have hoped to reverse both of these defeats at the next Westminster elections. In the 2007 Assembly campaign the story was relatively similar with the gradual erosion of the UUP’s position continuing. After those election victories, the DUP web site had a rather nifty little graphic which showed the DUP being the largest party in one election after another: that graphic disappeared immediately after the last European election and now to borrow a bit of semi Ulster Scots it will no come back again.

Once the DUP might have hoped to use this Westminster election to polish off the UUP’s Westminster representation and move towards the culmination of Robinson’s political dream: a single united unionist party under himself. Now,despite the utter incompetence of the UUP, (I hope the subject of a future blog) it is highly unlikely that the DUP will manage to hold all nine of its Westminster seats. Indeed now the DUP would regard the loss of only one or two as a relative victory. Whilst it might indeed be a fair showing considering the dire straits the party was in, in the immediate aftermath of Irisgate, it would still be a significant defeat. The DUP could quite easily lose South Antrim and Strangford to the CUs despite the utter chaos which has characterised practically every part of the CU build up to the election. Whilst there would be sensible explanations for the loss of both of these seats (McCrea’s relative unpopularity and difficulty gelling with that seat and the Irisgate factor respectively) when people had forgotten about the exact reasons for the election results, there would still be the simple fact that the DUP came out of the election far from having delivered a death blow to the UUP; rather with a UUP which would be strengthened in Westminster representation.

Clearly an even worse psychological blow would be Jim Allister taking North Antrim. The conventional wisdom is that Ian Paisley junior should hold the seat and indeed his father’s majority is highly impressive (18,000). However, the DUP have lost the incumbency factor, Paisley junior is far from the most popular of individuals and the taint of odd property transactions is far from unrelated to Ian Paisley junior. Also of course the DUP position has shifted vis a vis Sinn Fein in government and other touch stone issues to traditional DUP supporters.

Even if by some chance the DUP do manage to hold all their seats (something which even the most loyal DUP stalwart must gravely doubt and all the bookmaker’s statistics would argue against) it would still not represent a significant advance in their position. To advance they would have to win a seat and since they have opted out of North Down that has become even more unlikely requiring as it does the DUP to win South Belfast as well as holding all their seats. Even that fantasy would still almost without doubt see the DUP losing percentage share of the votes in the seats they fight. It is now inconceivable now that the DUP can replicate their 30% share of the vote in the 2007 assembly elections. That matters because unless they can have a realistic hope of getting about 30% in 2011 there is no way that many of their MLAs can feel confident of their seats and, hence, many of their political assistants, special advisers etc. can have no certainty of continuing their current positions.

The only ways by which the DUP can keep their current high tide of representation is if the CUs and / or the TUV disappear and that seems highly unlikely. Despite all the CUs recent disasters they seem remarkably difficult to kill. The DUP might hope that if Jim Allister loses in North Antrim the TUV will go away: again that seems highly unlikely. Finally of course the unionist electorate might suddenly decide that actually the DUP is completely and totally right, completely forget the assorted scandals and en masse come back to their direction of political travel prior to 2007. That seems almost completely impossible no matter how much the DUP want it to be so.

The current election is most unlikely to see the DUP explode or vanish suddenly beneath the political waves. However, unless they change something their greatest triumphs, achievements and power are behind them: thus far they seem to have been completely unable to solve these problems; they seem unable even to recognise that this problem exists. Whilst they will not sink any time soon political momentum is ebbing from them. Peter Robinson is as unable to stop that tide from ebbing as Canute was from stopping the flood tide. Many now suggest that Canute (a deeply religious man) was acting out a parable and knew full well that the tide would come in. Peter Robinson seems less aware that his is going out.