I’m not sure I’ve read a convincing account of why the DUP won back most of their high tide mandate so convincingly and with such ease. One of the more obvious reasons for that is that the DUP is probably the party most members of the media love to hate most.
It’s hard for many of us to forget the transgressions of the Paisley years. But the man who put in the footings of this more modern (and more female) party – Peter Robinson – also eschewed close connection with what the big Man used to sarcastically refer to as the ‘gentlemen of the press’.
But in some respects, the antipathy of the press may be one key ingredient of the party’s success. The nadir of Robinson’s career came with the Iris scandal in 2010 when there was feverish speculation that the party would split if Robinson did not resign.
Instead, it had the opposite effect. Wagons were circled and not only did they survive the crisis that succeeded it, by playing long Robinson came out ahead on a deal to devolve Policing and Justice which Sinn Fein had been petitioning for since 2007.
The following year they took their highest-ever percentage of votes and seats. If you consider that last Friday was something of a repeat of that high-level performance, then it’s worth considering what happened in the meantime.
It had always been Robinson’s intention to get Unionism out of ‘the laager’ into a broader and more breathable space. Within weeks of a conference speech that for once seemed to impress the local media Belfast was in the grip of the chaos of the infamous ‘Flegs’ dispute.
Weeks of street protest followed in what looked at the time as an ill-advised DUP organised leaflet calling for protest threatened to pull holy hell down on the heads of the citizens of greater Belfast.
It emboldened the party’s critics in the PUP and the TUV to be critical of a First Minister that appeared to have one foot in government and other in a ragbag opposition. At the same time protesters mocked him for not daring to join them personally.
But the intermediate corollary was a large boost in loyalist area registerations and later voter turnout. It was a significant turn in the tide of fortunes between working class nationalism and unionism.
The killing of Kevin McGuigan less than a year ago also threatened to bring down the whole Stormont when Mike Nesbitt walked out leaving every DUP Minister but the then acting FM to resign their seats only to take them up before it might re-assigned to someone from another party.
Despite risking showing the world just how little Stormont departments actually depend on their Minister’s Robinson came through at the end with the Fresh Start Agreement, a document we now know to have been the basis of a joint manifesto and draft PfG for this new term.
Within the week Robinson was gone after an emotional speech at his party’s conference in his own time (just), having pulled Sinn Fein over the line on Welfare Cuts (which they finessed by passing control for a year back to Westminster).
Not only did Robinson out negotiate Sinn Fein but he passed over the leadership to a leader in waiting he had been preparing the party to accept ever since he welcomed her into the party from the UUP just after the November 2003 Assembly election.
But in leaving when he did he took most of the toxicity that had built up around him since the Iris scandals leaving Arlene with a clean and some clear ground to play on.
The result was that the UUP rally disappeared, the PUP faded, and infuriatingly for Jim Allister (whom the media most enjoyed talking up as the DUP bogey) the TUV candidates proved to be little more than sweepers to allow the DUP to max out their seat returns.
Making it all about Arlene served two purposes. One, it set her and her party up with the legitimacy she lacked in the period running into the election. But it also set up a power narrative which obscured the party’s patchy record of being able to work with Sinn Fein in government.
Given that most of the power politics lead up to this settlement (if we even dare call it that?) derived from the machiavellian efforts of the past leader it is not clear yet just how Arlene will actually perform in post.
But given most of the political costs of the last few years seem to have been borne more by those parties that sought to exploit the DUP’s singular difficulty as the lead unionist party, you’d think they might have pause for further thought before trying do it all over again.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty
Living History 1968-74
A unique, once-in-a-lifetime 10-week course at Stranmillis University College Belfast featuring live, in-depth interviews with leading figures from this tumultuous era in Northern Ireland’s cultural and political history.
Live interviews with: Bernadette McAliskey, Austin Currie, Brid Rogers, Baroness Blood, Dennis Bradley, Baroness Paisley, Lord Kilclooney, Tim McGarry, Danny Morrison, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield and others…