This year, the Democratic Unionist Party will celebrate its 45th anniversary. It was only 13 years ago that it eclipsed the UUP to become the dominant unionist party in the fledgling Northern Ireland Assembly, and 10 years since the party committed to power-sharing with Sinn Fein. In that decade it has seen two further election victories, two leadership changes, the death of its founder, and the occasional controversy. Now, as the May election for the Northern Ireland Assembly draws near, the DUP and its new leader, Arlene Foster, are confident they will return another good performance. Looking at their track record in Assembly elections, it’s not hard to see why.
2003 Assembly Election: Ulster Says Yes to Paisley
The 2003 election results drew a lot of attention when it became clear that the traditionally dominant parties, the UUP and the SDLP, had both been bumped down to second place. David Trimble’s UUP had begun to decline over internal disagreements stemming from the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The DUP had remained united in their opposition to that agreement, primarily due to the involvement of Sinn Fein, and they remained opposed as they contested this election. The party instead called for a new arrangement which would have the support of unionists as well as nationalists. The results indicated that a large part of the unionist community agreed with this stance, with the DUP receiving over 25,000 more votes than the UUP, a 7% increase on their 1998 share of the vote.
The map makes it clear that even with this surge in popularity, the DUP’s support remained regional, and was largely based on personalities. The three highest results were won in Ian Paisley’s North Antrim (45.9%), Iris Robinson’s Strangford (47.9%) and Peter Robinson’s East Belfast (39.2%). In all three of these constituencies, those candidates’ personal votes make up a substantial part of those figures. Unsurprisingly, the DUP’s lowest results were in areas of strong nationalist support. The party’s success continued on to 2004 when UUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson defected to them, and again in the 2005 Westminster election when they added five seats to their representation in the House of Commons.
2007 Assembly Election: Power Sharing and Vote Winning
The DUP’s role in the 2006 St. Andrew’s Agreement and Ian Paisley’s commitment to power sharing with Sinn Fein in the newly-reconvened Assembly meant further success for the party when Northern Irish voters went to the polls again the following year. This time the DUP received over 103,000 more votes than the UUP, and 27,000 more than Sinn Fein in second place. The map below shows the stark difference between these results and those of 2003.
The DUP’s support bases in North Antrim and Strangford had spread into the rest of the north-east, with Lagan Valley seeing a huge 28% increase in the party’s vote (helped by Jeffrey Donaldson’s defection). The party’s support even increased in traditionally strong nationalist constituencies, though this was mostly due to the collapse in the UUP’s support in these areas. It was clear by now that the DUP had triumphed over the UUP when it came to commanding support from the unionist community. Fermanagh and South Tyrone is an interesting example. The DUP’s vote there rose by 7%, not only because the UUP’s support had fallen but because it wasn’t just Donaldson who had defected – this is the constituency of another UUP-turned-DUP member, Arlene Foster.
2011 Assembly Election: Footholds Old and New
The next four years saw the power-sharing executive running without any major controversy, and the DUP could reasonably expect to be returned as the largest party once more in the next Assembly elections in 2011 – although Peter Robinson’s surprise loss of his Westminster seat to the Alliance Party’s Naomi Long the year before did cause an upset. The party’s expectations were vindicated, and their vote share increased in all but three constituencies. These results saw the beginning of a change in the DUP’s support throughout Northern Ireland.
The vote share in Fermanagh and South Tyrone dropped by a mere 1% and increased by 5% in West Tyrone, giving the DUP a substantial foothold in the western constituencies, which by this time had also become strong support bases for Sinn Fein. This expansion of support for the party was also seen in its own traditional bases. Ian Paisley’s retirement put no large dent in the party’s vote in North Antrim, with Ian Paisley Jr. maintaining his father’s support there. Likewise, Jeffrey Donaldson’s resignation from the Assembly in 2010 had no negative impact on the DUP’s vote there, which actually increased to 53%, the best result for the party in a single constituency. All four of its Lagan Valley candidates were elected. Peter Robinson’s promotion to First Minister in between elections led to an increase in his share in Belfast East, and the party’s vote in North Down increased by over 10% for the second election in a row.
The 2016 Assembly Election: New Leader, New Patterns?
In the 2015 UK general election, the DUP and the UUP agreed to an election pact. The DUP did not stand candidates in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and in Newry and Armagh, while the UUP did not stand in Belfast North and Belfast East. This pact allowed the UUP to pick up two new seats, including in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. At the time, Arlene Foster said that the pact was designed to maximise unionist co-operation. The results were quite good for the party, with vote shares of over 40% in six separate constituencies.
Arlene Foster now leads the DUP as it prepares for the 2016 Assembly election. Her promotion, and Peter Robinson’s retirement from Stormont, may see a further shift in the party’s areas of support. There is a good chance that the DUP vote in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone will increase, based not just on Foster’s personal support there, but the presence of a strong unionist base cultivated by the two unionist parties working together. The party’s recent stance against the allegations of continued IRA activity will likely enhance support for the party in its already strong areas in the north and east. As well as gaining more support in the west the DUP may also hope that its East Londonderry candidates might see its support there break 40% like it did in the general election. Indeed, the only areas in which the party should not expect any great increase in support is in the Sinn Fein and SDLP strongholds of Foyle, Newry and Armagh and South Down, although considering the same could have been said of Fermanagh and Tyrone not long ago, further surprises may yet be down the line.