It is only a year since the Iris Robinson affair rocked the DUP; following that there was the row about the £5 land deal. Many expected the meltdown or at least heavy defeat of the DUP. Then in the Westminster election the challenge of both the UUP and TUV was almost completely defeated. Peter Robinson paid a heavy price and as I noted at the time seemed to act as a lightening conductor taking on himself the damage to the party. It looked then as if Robinson’s rule of the DUP would be short lived and that he would be a lame duck leader. However, nothing has been further from the truth. Robinson went on holiday and rather than come back a defeated, discredited leader about to hand the baton over he has stormed back. The scars may still show but the wounds seem to have healed and now he appears to have more tact, charm and even grace. The wounds have also not stopped the formidable political tactician from wheeling out new ideas. His speech on integrated education and follow up leaders speech at the party conference seemed to reveal a man in total command of his party, pushing forward yet again.
These speeches seem to be marking out new territory for the DUP. It seems to be offering both a moving forward and a more liberal narrative to run concurrently with the already well established (to most) hard line brand values of the DUP.
Politically the effect of these moves seems to be to outflank the UUP and indeed envelop them. Now the DUP are offering not only more hard line unionism that the UUP but are also trying to suggest that they simultaneously offer a more inclusive, more progressive looking and indeed more mainland GB form of politics. Calling for a focus on jobs and bread and butter issues offers a narrative that the union is won and now the DUP is going to get on with making Northern Ireland better.
In some ways what the DUP seems to be trying to do is to do a Molyneaux on the UUP. It was Molyneaux who almost managed to strangle the DUP by creating a broad church party containing senior members more liberal and secular than the DUP and yet also having members more hard line and a fair smattering of old fashioned fundamentalists.
Whilst the strategy seems a good one there are flaws in it which may make the DUP vulnerable to attack.
One of the major aims of the new tactics seems to be getting non voting unionists / prods out to vote. The reasoning is that bread and butter issues are the mechanism by which non voting unionists can be energised to vote. By this thesis people are no longer willing to come out to vote simply because the union needs to be defended but need to be offered general day to day political benefits. Many unionist commentators have discussed the garden centre Prod and many have (like myself) suggested that the garden centre Prod is not necessarily liberal and may actually be surprisingly hard line though despairing of the quality of unionist politics and politicians. By this aggressive focus on bread and butter issues along with its previous reputation for hard line unionism the DUP may be better placed to persuade the grumpy garden centre Prod out to vote than the civic unionists of the CUs were at the last Westminster election.
In addition to the fact that the garden centre Prod may often be more hard line than is usually suggested, there is the fact that many non voting prods are actually working and not middle class. This can be demonstrated quite easily by looking at the voting figures by ward: something the DUP has done. However, here the DUP’s plan does have a few problems. Once the DUP was a party with very many working class based leaders and in addition had a phenomenal reputation for hard constituency work. The last decade has seen a degree of gentrification of the leadership cadre of the DUP which may (and only may) make their appeal to working class non voting unionists (shell suit unionists) more difficult. In addition rightly or wrongly the DUP has lost some of its reputation for constituency work. That perception may make the acquisition of both garden centre and shell suit unionist votes more difficult.
Another danger in the current DUP strategy is that it at least feels too Belfast focused: that might be an unfair perception but Peter Robinson is very much a Belfast politician and many of the leadership are Belfast centred. In addition most of his advisers and the party apparatchiks of necessity, although originally often from out of town, have now lived in Belfast for a decade or more. This does not mean that they cannot or do not relate to country unionists. However, it does look as though a significant part of the current strategy is directed at regaining one particular segment of voters: those in East Belfast who voted Alliance at the last election, hence, removing Peter Robinson. Although Alliance seems to feel itself on something of a roll after Long’s victory in East Belfast and the defection of several failed UUP candidates to its ranks it would almost certainly be an over statement to suggest that Alliance has gained a large amount of ground. Peter Robinson may not like it and his advisers may not want to tell him (if they suspect it) but much of the vote which went to Long seems to have been a protest vote against Robinson personally: A protest which may well now have played itself out. As such moves towards liberalism may not attract that many votes within Belfast let alone outside it. Set against that bread and butter issues from a strongly unionist party: a sort of Alliance backed up with some real unionism looks like a fairly good electoral pitch.
One of the other things which makes the current strategy look very East Belfast focused was the very public welcoming of the ex loyalist prisoner and ex PUP councillor Tommy Sandford. This looked like an attempt to garner East Belfast PUP votes: the fact that this seemed to run counter to a liberal middle class Alliance friendly strategy seemed to be ignored. Indeed such is the unpopularity of the PUP it may actually have damaged the DUP amongst working class East Belfast unionists (very few of whom vote PUP despite the PUP’s claims and assorted media luvvies wishes to the contrary); let alone its effect on rural unionists who have almost without exception regarded the PUP with complete contempt.
It looks as though the current DUP strategy is to try to hold on to its own vote and simultaneously pull in liberal Alliance types. In addition the the hope seems to be that UUP voters will also happily turn to the DUP seeing as they have potential DUP policies more, as, and less moderate than the UUP and can in addition the DUP can offer the appearance of much greater party discipline, organisation and positive momentum.
The above strategy may well work but again there are dangers. One of the major reasons those who still vote UUP do so is because that is what they have always done. There is a solid core of UUP voters who will simply vote UUP come what may. The exact size of that vote is unclear but it may be that the UUP is down to that core vote and cannot be chipped away much further. It might be that although the DUP can keep harder line voters than the UUP and although it may be able to gain some moderates it could be left with a large stubborn knot of UUP voters politically between the various positions of its supporters.
In addition despite the liberal suggestions of the recent Robinson speeches the DUP does still have some problems making such suggestions sound convincing with the personalities it currently has. The DUP old guard are seen as hard line and the exUUP members such as Arlene Foster, Nelson McCausland and Jeffrey Donaldson were all on the more hard line wing of the DUP. As such the appeal to moderates may look less convincing. Peter Robinson himself has always been known to have fairly moderate views by DUP (and even maybe by UUP) standards: remember the Unionist Task Force Report. However, set against that is the fact that Robinson has also been seen in a much harder light at times: the nadir for his now moderate face being the invasion of Clontibret.
As well as the difficulties reaching out to the liberals, UUP and non voters there is the danger of loosing votes to the TUV. Whilst the TUV were of course heavily beaten in the Westminster elections they have at least one more outing left in them. Those 66,000 voters who supported Jim Allister in the European elections have not gone away. Most seemed to return to the DUP fold at Westminster. However, they might defect again in an STV election especially if the DUP were seen to be becoming too liberal or seen as failing adequately to address their concerns.
A further difficulty for the DUP may also be created by their sheer level of success. Part of the problem prior to the European elections was a perception of over confidence and indeed arrogance on the part of the DUP. Now again there is a certain confidence about the DUP: one can hardly blame them as their rivals manage to suffer assorted often self inflicted problems. Peter Robinson certainly seems to have learned a degree of tact and even humility from the bruising events of the last year. Other members of the party might again, however, be accused of demonstrating confidence. Confidence can easily become over confidence and arrogance. All political parties can suffer from that and that way often lies ruin.
The DUP do have a number of problems facing them and there is a danger that other problems as yet unforeseen will derail them. However, at the moment most of their problems seem to be either those of success or relatively minor ones. No one can be certain of the future but at the moment at any rate Peter Robinson’s position is probably the most comfortable of any party leader in Northern Ireland: that one can say that only twelve months after Irisgate is truly surprising.
This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.