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.