The unionist lens: RHI or no RHI, who’s best placed to keep the Shinners in check?

Soon after Martin McGuinness’ resignation as deputy First Minister, we saw the DUP sign up to a public inquiry, call for party talks, and reverse the cut to the Líofa scheme. If this episode has taught us anything, it’s that despite all their intransigence, when their hand is forced, the DUP are quite capable of being sound.

However, by the time of this newfound pragmatism, the ship of any “window of opportunity” touted by Charlie Flanagan had long since sailed. Sure, it was Sinn Féin that ultimately pulled the plug, but responsibility for the escalation of the crisis itself lies firmly in the DUP’s court.

Indeed, bar the faithful bubble of DUP partisans hailing a ‘strong unionist leader’, few can really deny the complete hash that Arlene Foster has made of this crisis, as her ministry over the botched RHI scheme has been followed up by an equally botched response to the public outcry.

Foster has been particularly keen to front her critics through a unionist veil, but such criticism evidently hasn’t been limited to the nationalist sphere. Alex Kane has said the “present chaos” was “largely Foster’s doing”; Jim Allister described Foster as the “author of squander”; Naomi Long criticised her “imperiousness and petulance”; while Peter Hain, in probably the most aptly put of them all, described Foster’s approach as “a textbook case of how not to handle a crisis”.

It’s equally worth noting that, amidst all the talk of a “republican agenda”, it was a fellow leader of unionism in the form of Mike Nesbitt who was the first to call for Foster’s resignation as First Minister.

It’s something of an understatement to say that RHI has been a bad news story for the DUP, and so it’s expected that the party will at least shed a few votes in the upcoming election. Interestingly, while the DUP won 3 in every 10 votes in the Assembly elections of 2011 (30%: 198,436) and 2016 (29.2%: 202,567), the party won a lesser share of the vote in the 2014 council elections (23.1%: 144,928); resulting in a notable disparity of the share between 2014 and both 2011 (6.9%) and 2016 (6.1%).

This 50,000-strong crop of voters have shown to be quite capable of falling short for the DUP on election day before and, in the context of RHI, some may well be tempted to give the party a by ball at the ballot box once again. Nonetheless, commentators remain rather muted on the prospect of any sizeable swing.

Paul Givan has said that this election is effectively an exercise in “testing unionism” and though he is obviously doing his bit to circle the wagons, there’s an element of truth to this statement. Present circumstances put the DUP electorate in something of a catch-22 situation, because an on masse snub of the party would subsequently spilt the unionist vote, thus stifling the DUP’s position as the all-important vanguard of northern unionism.

This avenue of thought ultimately needs to be viewed through a unionist lens: RHI or no RHI, which party is best placed to keep the Shinners in check? It’s a rather crude way to approach it, but then the DUP approach has been exactly that in recent Assembly elections – and, most significantly, it worked a treat; the party having won the majority support of the unionist electorate in 2011 (64.1%) and 2016 (61.4%).

Given the RHI cloud currently reigning over the public parade, there is no time like the present to employ such an approach again. It may be the only card that the DUP has left, but the unionist card is certainly not a weak one.
Jim Wilson, exemplifying this very point on the Nolan Show, took Nesbitt to task for the UUP being “in the same camp” as Sinn Féin on the issue of RHI, before also adding: “I’m disappointed in Mike because I’m a unionist” – so much for Nesbitt’s RHI referendum. Indeed, it’ll take more than £85,000 a day to buy the loyalty of the DUP’s most ardent supporters.

Some DUP folks have already given us a “brutal” glimpse of what’s to come: we will not “give in” nor “bow down” says Nigel Dodds; they want to “break us” says Givan; “Do they think they can dictate terms to the unionist community?” says Gregory Campbell. Ian Paisley Jr may have chosen not to “beat the drum” on The View, but the DUP, it seems, is gearing up for the mother of all “beat the drum” campaigns.

In this election, the DUP is effectively banking on the ideological unionism of its electoral base to supersede whatever misgivings they may have about the RHI scheme. Such is the strength of unionism here that the DUP may well rise from the ashes largely unscathed. Anyhow; in the early hours of Friday 3rd March, we’ll soon find out.

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