Post-damage-limitation, challenge for DUP is not whether they choose to change, but how they choose to change

DUP Nigel Dodds shadowThe boil has been lanced. To borrow from Oscar Wilde:

“To become the news story once during an election campaign may be regarded as a misfortune; to do it twice in a week over the same issue looks like carelessness.”

NI Executive ministers rarely resign.

If it hadn’t been in the middle of an election campaign, I doubt that Jim Wells would have had to inform the First Minister of his intention to stand down from his post as Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.

The last six four days must have been long ones for those managing strategy and the media within the DUP as they sought to deal with this election campaign’s largest omnishambles:

In the short term, the reporting around Jim Wells’ comments will have done little to help Gavin Robinson in Belfast East. Jonathan Bell’s opportunity in Belfast South to slip through the middle of a split nationalist vote between Alasdair McDonnell and Máirtín Ó Muilleoir is now even less likely.

Two other constituencies are in play for the DUP. David Simpson’s majority of 3361 was expected to shrink in Upper Bann as he faces UUP challenger Jo-Anne Dobson.

Perhaps still most at risk is Willie McCrea’s South Antrim seat with a slim majority of 1183 and a diminishing turnout. Mild mannered Danny Kinahan doesn’t need much of a surge to win.

Leaving Jim Wells in place until 11 May means that the decision around who replaces him will not have to be rushed. This luxury of a two week delay would be inconceivable for any party in government at Westminster. In the meantime, Finance Minister Simon Hamilton “will assume some of Jim’s duties to release some of the pressure”.

The Health portfolio requires someone with strength and courage, though a good dose of nuance and tact would be useful.

  • You can never go back in politics, so Edwin Poots is out of the frame.
  • Even if Jonathan Bell polls really well and doesn’t win Belfast South I still don’t see him being in play for the Ministry.
  • Weren’t there reports that Arlene Foster has previously declined the opportunity to move from DETI to Health? Besides, with a change of leadership expected in late Autumn, Health requires a minister who’ll be in position until May 2016.
  • Could this be the moment for Alastair Ross or Michelle McIlveen?

One thing is for sure: Pam Cameron won’t be getting a ministerial position any time soon!

The DUP is a “broad church”, much broader than their conservative, moralising image depicts. If Jim Wells’ hadn’t resigned during the election campaign, his shadow would have been cast over the party’s other 15 candidates.

The challenge for the DUP is not whether they choose to change, but how they choose to change. That challenge will come from within.

DUP MLAs don’t yet have the opportunity to vote with their conscience on ‘moral’ motions in the Assembly. Party discipline is imposed and there’s no option to abstain or excuse themselves from the building to avoid voting against their conscience.

There are MLAs on the benches who would personally prefer to abstain or even vote positively in Assembly motions on same sex marriage and abortion. There are elected representatives who are very uncomfortable with Gregory Campbell’s outbursts against Irish, and view the prolonged Twaddell Avenue dispute as futile.

Post-election, the DUP need to steer back away from the extreme right before the Assembly election in May 2016. The threat of UKIP and TUV is not so great that right wing politics are a viable alternative to more progressive policies.

The next leader needs to bring the whole party with her or him and win back the respect of people who don’t vote DUP. As the party has discovered, their influence at Westminster and their lobbying potential at the door of 10 Downing Street is being coloured by English political views of the Dinosaurs of Ulster Party. They need to recover their credibility.

In the meantime, for so many reasons, today is going to be a birthday Jim Wells will never forget.

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  • I agree with much of what Alan says. The key question that should be put to all DUP candidates is “Do you agree or disagree with Jim Wells’s views on gays and children at risk?’ My guess is that many of them would agree. If it’s a big enough issue to lead to Jim Wells’s resignation as a Minister, it’s a big enough issue to be put to every DUP candidate. And others.

  • Granni Trixie

    Good analysis and overview Alan.

    What will it say about Nesbitts judgement if UUP have success in two constituencies where there are not pacts with DUP? O I forgot ..maximising the potential for full blooded unionists trumps guilt by association with DUP.

    What a long term strategist!

  • Chingford Man

    I suspect what incenses the social liberals of Slugger is greeted with relative indifference by ‘swing’ unionists who will decide whether Robinson, Kinahan or Dobson win their seats. How many people are going to say, “I was going to vote DUP in East Belfast, but now that Jim Wells said what he did, and even though he is now resigning, I am now going for Naomi Long”? Wells’s resignations kills the immediate issue for the DUP. Any other conclusion is just liberal wishful thinking.

  • Dan

    That’s the key question?
    What a load of b******s, no harm to you.

    Apart from media and politicans, and the lobby groups, determined to make it a massive story, who else gives a fiddlers if he resigned or not?

  • ruhah

    Jude are you saying that there is a bedrock position regarding the environment for children to be raised in? Some agreed morality that we all need to sign up to?

  • Granni Trixie

    Claims that Wells resignation has killed the issue is what is wishful thinking. For various reasons. For starters, one is that JW is still a candidate and two that this story has revived the litany of similar examples amounting to a pattern. It also minimises DUP influence with mainland parties who fear guilt by association.

    Agree that what liberals and modernisers see as representing a fault line in society will be supported by an element of core supporters of DUP. Surely however the DUP need to be in tune with soft unionists especially in this pact situation where they presumably aim to win over UUP voters? Overall thus is not just a blip but is undermining their whole campaign. You could almost feel sorry for DUP listening to their PB this morning – it was meaningless due to the background story.

    As for EB – will be interesting to see how GR deals with this scandal.

  • John O’Connor

    Evidently that is the case nowadays.
    With absolutely no subtlety or nuance in the discussion.
    Its called Progressive Liberal Totalitarianism (PLT for short)

  • Jim’s resignation largely kills it as a broadcast media story after today. The election bandwagon will roll on to balanced reporting of the next policy topic.

    Gavin has dealt with it well so far, making no public comment. If Slugger’s hustings is anything to go by, If pressed he’ll surely revert to his trusty “You just need to listen to my words” comment.

  • Ernekid

    Well it’ll ensure that the people who voted Naomi Long last time will do so again. It’ll also ensure that apathetic voters or people who voted for other parties last time are much more likely to vote for Long.

    The DUP are toxic to people outside their immediate electoral base. They need to realise that.

  • OpenGoal

    While it’s difficult to not feel a great deal of sympathy with Jim Wells and his family’s situation, I don’t understand the logic behind the “I was stressed, that made me say homophobic things” argument. The doorstep disagreement seems particularly odd, intrusive and generally incredibly nasty. I couldn’t imagine doing a similarly hurtful thing at a time when my family and I were suffering ourselves.

    He’s a really interesting character when you step back and think about. Incredibly amicable (unless you are a lesbian couple and he knocks on your door seemingly), environmental campaigner, really passionate Chair of the Health Committee… Massive bigot. It’s a mix that’s probably unique to this part of the world.

    As for the DUP broad church argument, I’m not so convinced. It may be that there’s a silent minority in there somewhere, but they certainly do keep themselves extremely quiet. It seems to be based largely on age or them being the ones who have wine at DUP dinners (instead of Schler) once the Reverends have left the building, rather than any sort of significant political break (from social conservatism or economic populism). I’ve been impressed with Paula Bradley during encounters with her, can’t think of many others at a push.

  • Chingford Man

    “Well it’ll ensure that the people who voted Naomi Long last time will
    do so again. It’ll also ensure that apathetic voters or people who voted
    for other parties last time are much more likely to vote for Long.”

    You are wrong.

    Long’s victory margin was built upon defecting working class Prods on the Lower Newtownards Road who were incensed at the ‘Swish Family Robinson’. Those voters are already lost to Alliance. Long has for fewer votes she can squeeze from other parties than Gavin Robinson. In addition, Robinson is an emollient figure and seems less likely than his outgoing colleague to come adrift on social questions. It’s Robinson’s name on the ballot paper, not Jim Wells.

  • OpenGoal

    I know it’s easy for some to go on the PC gone mad bandwagon. But for a Minister of Health and Social Services to erroneously claim that same sex couples are more likely to abuse children is a pretty big misstep.

    For the same politician to then to go to someone’s door and insult them based on their sexuality is another pretty big misstep.

  • John O’Connor

    Point 1 – agreed – was a mis-step, although my understanding is that there is a level of risk there – not w.r.t. abuse, but with w.r.t. relationship stability and that that is actually discussed in child protection briefings.

    Point 2 – if thats what happened – yes – but we probably only have the two protaganists view on what actually happened unless it was actually recorded. And witness statements (both sides) in het up circumstances like this can be notoriously unreliable.

  • OpenGoal

    Hate to get all smoke without fire, but his two attempts to apologise would suggest he knew he’d crossed some sort of line. For me at least, the doorstep incident is the most worrying – we have no right to not be offended, but for that to actually take place on your own doorstep is a bit too far. Particularly from an experienced political campaigner – he must have been knocking doors for a few decades now?

    Obviously there is a risk that, when jumping over everything a politician says, we create a risk averse, media trained, bland politician. But I do think, in this instance, it was right for Jim Wells to resign. And it would be nice if it resulted in a softening from the DUP, just them being a bit more human and Christian (more happy clappy than fire and brimstone) generally.

  • barnshee

    Sigh -The contest remains “Prod V Mick”
    Gurning by politicians making capital on Wells will not affect that
    The end result of the election will be little if any change

  • John O’Connor

    Dont disagree – and if you are seeking votes, its always wiser either not to disagree, or do it diplomatically.

  • mjh

    Wells’ resignation suggests that the DUP canvass returns are not as good as they would like. Consider:

    1. DUP ministers never resign in the face of controversy. So what is different this time?

    2. His comments could put off some UUP voters who might otherwise have voted DUP under the pact. But since his comments told them nothing they would not already have known about DUP attitudes we can expect the number of such voters to be relatively low – more likely in the hundreds than the thousands.

    3. If the mathematics of the General Election outcome put the DUP in the position of a potential player at Westminster ,and either Labour or the Conservatives wanted to do a deal neither would let Jim Wells stand in their way. We can discount this as the reason for the resignation.

    4. With the story only gaining traction on Saturday there will have been very little formal canvassing carried out by the DUP since.

    This suggest that Wells had to go because the party could not risk losing that relatively small number of former UUP voters.

    In other words the party was already concerned that it was not getting enough support on the doorsteps to assure them of victory in at least one of their target constituencies EVEN BEFORE Wells spoke.

  • Reader

    Alan meban: confuse – with the revelation that Jim Wells takes medication for narcolepsy; and finally…
    Wow – I wonder if Jim takes GHB for narcolepsy – apparently it can cause behavioural issues…

  • james

    I think the key question would be competency for the job. Incidentally, would you agree that a key question for any prospective SF candidate is: “Do you agree that Gerry Adams was right to cover up paedophilia, thys actively encouraging its continuation?”. As you are so concerned about protecting the vulnerable.

  • Robin Keogh

    If i was a SF candidate and somebody put that to me i would say this. I dont believe there was a genuine attempt on the part of Gerry Adams to deliberately cover up anything, nor do i believe he would honestly have thought that his actions would put children at risk, however… if the police felt that he might have a case to answer then i would encourage him to do what he has been doing and that is to continue assisting police with their general enquiries. A very important component part in all of this is the issue of child abuse across a broad spectrum of organisations and institutions, a culture of abuse developed and we all need to work hard to find out why it did and make sure we provide the services and judicial resources to ensure survivors can feel safe coming forward and secure that everything will be done to ensure they have the best chance possible of securing justice.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Agree Barnshee ! Unionist V Non Unionist will churn out the same voting patterns and results as always and in the few dog fight constituencies No change except Unionist gain one MP in East Belfast. Long and Alliance are not Unionist !

  • Ha ha – very good James. I like it. You say there’s a smell in the room? C’mere and we’ll go up the street – there’s another smell there….

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Them Working Class Prod Votes in East Belfast was 3000 at 2014 BCC Elections (PUP FPV). Agree CM – Gone with the Wind for Long and Alliance !

  • Granni Trixie


    On reflection, I think that not taking decisive action in replacing JW is a mistake by PR – it prolongs the story and suggests (rightly) that there is no immediate suitable person to appoint.

    I expect he had in mind a clean slate post election but instead this DUP
    damage limitation strategy is sustaining a vacuum in which the public is being reminded of DUP baggage.

  • I agree, Robin. I’d just add that we should be careful not to repeat the traditional sin-preaching of the Catholic Church. Yes, it’s ironic, I know. But when I was young and for a long tim after, the only sin was sexual transgression. Now we are in danger of hunting down sexual transgression and assuming that politicians/clergy/BBC/media celebs are capable of that vice only.

  • Dia ar sabhail – God save us, ruhah you ask some terribly difficult questions. ‘A bedrock position regarding the environment for children to be raised in’? ‘Agreed morality’ for signing up to? I just think all children deserve the maximum amount of love and protection possible, so they grow up thoughtful happy people. How do you get that? Well I suppose by loving and protecting them. Bedrocks I don’t know about.

  • jeep55

    There is one misjudgement that may yet come back to haunt Nesbitt. His deal with Robinson was clearly designed to unseat Naomi Long. So he has infuriated Alliance voters (and indeed some of his own). There are two seats on Nesbitt’s hit list where tactical voting by Alliance supporters could help him. Both are fielding ‘moderate’ UUs – South Antrim and Upper Bann. There are about 5,000 Alliance voters in the former and 3,000 in the latter. Many vote tactically in Westminster elections. But after the pact (as a core Alliance voter) I wouldn’t give him house room – and I’m sure many like me feel the same way.

  • james

    So moving his brother, whom he believed to be guilty, to roles where he would have access to and influence over other potential victims….? I would find it extraordinary if the thought hadn’t occurred to him that he was putting children at risk, wouldn’t you?

  • james

    So your point is….?

  • james

    Also, respectfully, one suspects that you lack the pedigree to be a SF candidate.

  • mickfealty

    That anyone who thinks that about child abuse within couples is already climbing up the mountain of credibility in a very nasty Force 8 gale, is all..

    Tom Kelly makes an excellent point in this regard (

    …what constitutes good governance during an election? No serving Minister should be allowed to continue in office whilst contesting an election not associated with the Assembly and even then purdah should be strictly enforced.

    It is ridiculous that special advisors working in elections or contesting them have to stand aside from their posts for the duration of an election but a Minister does not.

    Neither Mr Wells nor indeed his party colleague, Mr Bell should have remained in ministerial office whilst they pursue election to another forum. This is something that the Assembly Standards and Privileges Committee, its Commissioner and the Electoral Commission should rectify.

    Emphasis is mine.

  • mickfealty

    Yes, now don’t get me started again Robin…

  • notimetoshine

    Why now? Why him? DUPers have come out with far more vicious and offensive comments about the gays and gotten away with it. Yet they faced no censure, no punishment and certainly didn’t resign.

    I have to assume that either the DUP is liberalising (unlikely) or far more liekly in my opinion yhat wells was not in favour with the party leadership and this was just a good push factor.

  • Sergiogiorgio

    You are about as right about this Ching, as you were about Wells. Storm in a teacup?

  • Jag

    The DUP increasingly looks like the local chapter of the Westboro Baptist Church. Why don’t they just have done with it and replace their “let’s keep Northern Ireland moving forward” (which I always thought was hilarious when coupled with their regular doomladen warnings of Northern Ireland being on the brink of the abyss) with “God Hates Fags”

  • I have a sympathy for Tom Kelly’s point. Standing for another election while a minister is double-jobbing (if you are taking the election seriously … which Jim Wells needed to since he’s really fighting to maximise his share of first preferences at next year’s Assembly election).

    On the other hand it took us a long time to do anything about stopping allowing MLAs and indeed Executive ministers (Sammy Wilson) to double job as MPs at Westminster … so it’s rich for us to suggest that a piece of short term campaigning means they need to resign. But I’ve heard other people during this campaign ask how Jonathan Bell can be campaigning to win Belfast South and holding down responsibilities (and salary) as a Junior Minister at OFMdFM too.

  • Robin Keogh

    thanks James, it seems to be “insult Robin week” so i will let you away with that

  • Robin Keogh


  • james

    Wasn’t an insult, Robin. In truth, I meant it as a compliment.

  • Chingford Man

    Put it this way. I don’t confuse the PC anti-unionist obsessions of people like yourself with the concerns of ordinary people.

  • Gopher

    Can’t help but think the DUP dodged the bullet today. Failing to get them to play the petition of concern means the whole exercise was a damp squib. It seems nearly half the SDLP went for a July 20th style walk and Alliance on a conscience vote arnt too fussed about the idea, whilst moderate unionism dont seem to perturbed about voting the issue down. Church goers must vote. The suspicion remains that on a conscience vote it does not matter if you vote yes if you know in advance the motion will fail. As for SF tommorrow they might vote against the motion if it serves their purpose , they could abstain the next day, Gerry Kelly on point wernt the cleverest of plays.

    The scores on the doors after to day are the DUP are still biblical, dinosaur deniers with one less trainwreck (Poots, McCauseland and Wells out of the frontline gets rid of three aunt sallys) Simon Hamilton gets to look even more competent compared to 90% of the other MLA’s and as Jim Wells has obviously been mentally impaired over the last couple of days any further attacks will just look vindictive. He has been outed as not being a capable politician. The only mistake the DUP made is not calling the Gay Marriage referendum for 1916 Obviously they dont want anything to interfere with the converage of Easter 16. Dumb.

    I think a new rule for the assembly should be is if you are forced to use a petition of concern the issue goes to referendum at the next election.

  • Chingford Man

    You obviously have an issue with the DUP seeming to abuse gays, but you don’t have an issue with abusing the DUP yourself. Stop being hypocritical.

  • Robin Keogh

    Well no if his brother had begged for mercy and promised to reform. Dealing with your own flesh and blood in these scenarios is very different to how one might deal with a starnger

  • Robin Keogh

    Ah now I see. Thanks, i suppose 😉

  • james

    I wouldn’t know. But kin or not, if any child of mine had been deliberately left at risk by Adams predictably putting the party good before public safety by letting his deviant brother skulk around youth clubs in West Belfast, I sure as hell would never vote for him again.

  • mickfealty

    It’s still a reasonable idea, I think.

  • Robin Keogh

    I am not sure u are correct there. If i remember correctly, at the time Aine herself didn’t want the police involved ot she didnt trust them, i cant remember which. I would imagine if he was protecting anyone it is more likely his family rather than the party.In terms of voting i think u have to remeber that for people in the South at least, the widespread and sytematic abuse means that literally tens of thousands of people are walking around with uncomfortable secrets in their pockets. It might explain why SF recived a 5% Jump in the polls yesterday. People atre just not buying the narrative that us shinners are all child abusing nasty murderers.

  • james

    I must ask for clarification: you claim that tens of thousands in the Republic may have undiscovered skeletons in the closet regarding abuse they carried out in the past, and then link this to the bump in SF electoral support. Are you implying that sex offenders votail Sinn Fein? And if so, why?

  • Robin Keogh

    No i didnt say that. Ten of thousand of children were affected by abuse over decades. This abuse was carried out in institutions of the state and in the homes of victims themselves. We know that families didnt have the skills to deal with the trauma and tried to cope in house as it were. So, its fair to assume that many many people are carrying around a level of guilt, or suspicion or indeed knowledge pertaining to abuse incidents. As such it might explain why so many people are lax to judge the allegations against Adams and SF.

  • james

    So…guilty people vote Sinn Fein? Elect the party that puts your own sins in the shade. Hmm….

  • Robin Keogh

    No James and its beneath u to be so glib about something so serious. If only abuse incidents were as cut and dry, black and white as u seem to believe. Families that are affected by abuse trauma often experience severe psychological damage as a result of shock from the revelations and accusations. From plain denial to pure terror. A gauntlet of emotions is experienced and usually inadequetely handled. Its the failure of those coping skills and the sheer guilt associated with the percieved failure to act responsibly and morally that has resulted in an entire cohort of people trying to manage their emotions. Modern prisms tend to be crystal clear and fail to appreciate the foggy reality of the past. I know this because i happen to be very close to a survivor of abuse and i have seen first hand how the mobilised social horror can unintentionally drag out the suffering of the victim. Efforts to aportion blame and seek vengence often runs contrary to the wishes of victims and can destort the judicial process when and if it ever visits the court. Ultimately people vote in line with issues that are actually pressing. If u want Adams in jail or vilified for his admitted mishandling of Aines case then it must apply across the board, and thats logistically impossible.

  • mjh

    The idea in your last paragraph is very interesting.

    It retains the Petition of Concern mechanism as a backstop protection if genuinely needed.

    It severely penalises any party or group of parties which uses it frivolously.

    It prevents decisions on an issue being postponed indefinitely.

    And in a system which (albeit necessarily) largely protects parties losing their places in government it puts more power directly back into the hands of the electorate.

    It would be necessary to consider whether there would need to be a weighted majority (of say 55%) for a referendum proposal triggered in this way to pass, in order to maintain the principle that one community could not override the critical interests of another.

  • Jag

    You’re right, I should indeed be held to the same standard as a group of people who make or seek to retain discriminatory laws for this part of the island. I’m obviously vewwwy, vewwwwy sorry but in my defence (a) I’m completely bonkers (b) I have family issues which make me a complete ars* (c) I have a hitherto undisclosed ailment which somehow I think might be relevant or face-saving. Just pick one mitigation/defence and stop being so vile to me.

  • Chingford Man

    What a stupid response. You accuse the DUP of being abusive yet you criticise it in abusive terms youurself. That makes you a hypocrite.

  • Sergiogiorgio

    That explains why you are invariably wrong as you can’t tell common sense against your skewed view of the “ordinary” man.

  • Joe Canning

    I disagree about Wells having to inform the First Minister. Methinks the first minister informed Mr. Wells. Now he himself should consider his position.

  • Joe Canning

    Catch yerself on Slugger…More than likely the hypocrite FM told Wells he had to go. Pity he doesn’t consider his position as well

  • Chingford Man

    (Yawns loudly.)

  • james

    I’m being glib for a purpose. I’m sure you are right that much abuse went unreported, and many people suffered. I just don’t really see that that would translate into votes for Sinn Fein, ‘because they covered it up, too’.

  • Robin Keogh

    I never suggested it translates into votes i just said its not a hindrence when considering voting SF.Two very different things.

  • james

    I don’t think anyone is assuming that it isn’t something that can occur in every corner of society. Personally, though, my suspicion is that instances of abuse are slightly more prevalent in the lives of politicians, pop stars, journalists and all manner of celebrities. It seems to sonetimes be the case that people who choose life courses where the primary drive is an overweening need for external validation have somewhere in their psyche something deeply troubled.