Who can save the DUP?

In December of 2016 when Jonathan Bell revealed to Stephen Nolan the extent of the Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI) scandal, Arlene Foster’s tenure as leader of the DUP was over. This was a sliding doors moment for the DUP, Unionism, and Northern Ireland as a whole, by remaining in charge Arlene Foster has undoubtedly damaged all three entities when this scenario was avoidable had she resigned at the time. This week a significant number of DUP elected representatives including over 75% of the Assembly team sent a letter of no confidence to Arlene Foster and her leadership team which includes deputy leader Nigel Dodds, Senior Advisor Emma Little-Pengelly, Chief Executive Timothy Johnson, and Director of Communications John Robinson. From Foster failing to make the necessary incremental changes to the party since 2015 and with a looming election in 2022 when the DUP is predicted to collapse, the DUP is panic-stricken, however, who takes over the leadership reins and can the DUP be saved?

Naively when Arlene Foster was appointed leader of the DUP in 2015, I felt that this could bring about a gradual change in approach from the party. The DUP as an entity was out of kilter with its supporters, due primarily to being a religious fundamentalist political party, more in sync with the Free Presbyterian church than mainstream Unionism. Unfortunately for both the DUP and Unionism in general, Foster has been unable to make the necessary changes to the DUP and the party has regressed further since 2015. Aside from not driving through the necessary internal changes to the DUP, there have been several issues that have blighted Foster’s tenure as leader, namely:

– The RHI Scandal and the subsequent political fallout

– Mishandling of Brexit resulting in the Northern Ireland Protocol

– Innumerable accounts of party members engrossed in scandal

– Lack of discipline within the party

– Lack of accountability and repercussions when party members breach acceptable standards

– Bad decision making – “Never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity”.

– Poor and unrealistic policies

– No coherency and lack of credible leadership

Although there are now calls for a leadership contest, this does not mean one will be called, indeed such a contest would be unprecedented for the DUP, a party that does coronations rather than contests. Furthermore, a contest could see Arlene Foster returned as leader, subject to Foster standing and no alternative candidates putting their hat into the ring. Such a scenario is not improbable, DUP insiders fear a small < 5% drop in support if Arlene Foster leads the DUP through the next election, however, an alternative candidate could see the party annihilated at the polls. What is becoming more evident is that with each passing day, that 5% drop is looking more and more optimistic if Foster remains at the helm.

The underlying issue for the DUP and Unionism, in general, is that an alternative leader is not obvious. Simon Hamilton was the leader in waiting should Arlene Foster need replacing, however, Hamilton’s unexpected departure from politics has left the DUP without a plan B. Some of the obvious names being tipped are as follows:

Jeffrey Donaldson – Although the initial favourite, DUP members are unlikely to want another ex-UUP member to lead them. Donaldson is also hamstrung due to being the group leader of the highly problematic DUP Westminster team, a team he has been unable to maintain control of, the personalities of Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley have continually run roughshod over Donaldson. If Donaldson cannot manage his team of eight, then it’s unlikely he can lead the full party, Unionism, and be First Minister of Northern Ireland. What Donaldson can offer is less baggage, however, with political heavyweights such as Jim Allister and Naomi Long in the mix vying for DUP votes, Donaldson is likely to be squeezed and could be completely ineffectual at offsetting an Alliance/TUV surge. Also, some very poor media interviews illustrate that Donaldson is not the safe pair of hands he once was. I suspect he may be appointed as part of a leadership consortium whilst remaining at Westminster.

Gavin Robinson – The dark horse, inexperienced and unproven but someone who is not considered toxic by many outside of the DUP, this is hugely important. Robinson’s issue is that he is very lowkey to almost being invisible and like Donaldson he has not attempted to control the unruly Westminster team. There is a fear that if he is the leader, he will be bullied by some of the more wayward members of the DUP, this fear could prove to be unfounded but as Robinson is such an unknown entity it does present a risk. Further complications are that if he is DUP leader, he would unlikely be First Minister and would remain as an MP, a byelection in East Belfast would be high-risk for the DUP at the moment, although Naomi Long standing again for the Alliance party may prove unpopular with the electorate having jumped from MLA to MEP and back to MLA whilst standing for MP on multiple occasions.

Christopher Stalford – In many ways Stalford is the ideal DUP candidate, smart, popular within the party, and well respected. Stalford has made some controversial statements on social media in the past and has since left Twitter but his main issue is a lack of experience. Whilst Stalford was expected to have been an Executive Minister within the Assembly, he instead took the role of deputy speaker and is no longer considered a ‘rising star’. People forget that Stalford is only 38 and will need some mentoring if he is to become the new leader, however, I believe he is the most serious candidate available to the DUP from within the Assembly.

Nigel Dodds – Had Dodds held onto his North Belfast seat, he would be the leader of the DUP by now, however, his positioning within the House of Lords causes some problems for the DUP. The party may opt to continue with Arlene Foster as First Minister and appoint Dodds as the overall leader. This causes obvious problems with having an unelected person as party leader and Dodds has looked a shadow of his former self since losing his Westminster seat, however, as a temporary interim leader he could be an option for the DUP. The issue with the motion at present is that it includes Dodds, however, ousting him rather than utilising his ability and experience is a mistake, Dodds is one of the more pragmatic members of the DUP, going after him like this could cause the DUP additional problems especially if they opt to shift further to the right.

Aside from potential future leaders being light on the ground, several problematic candidates put into leadership positions will further diminish the appeal of the DUP such as Sammy Wilson, Edwin Poots, Ian Paisley, and Paul Givan. These members are hugely popular within the party, however, they will be a more difficult sell to a wider audience.

Prediction – Donaldson Leader, Foster to remain as First Minister with the possibility of Poots transitioning in.

DUP’s wildcard option – Robinson Leader, Foster to remain as interim First Minister with Stalford transitioning into the role (Pam Cameron or Paula Bradley as possible alternatives).

Aside from the leadership issues within the DUP, the party requires root and branch changes. The main problem is not the leader but the policies and for too long the DUP has been getting the policies wrong. Everyone knows exactly what the DUP opposes, however, what do they stand for? How do their policies progress Northern Ireland and copper fasten its position within the United Kingdom? How does the DUP reconnect with mainstream Unionism? Until the DUP addresses these points, the identity of the leader is irrelevant. At the moment many see the DUP as a threat to the Union, this alone is a huge problem that the party cannot ignore.

A fundamental problem within the DUP is that some people calling for change are a huge part of the problem. Members such as Sammy Wilson with controversial comments in the past and a raft of COVID breaches during the pandemic as well as at times appearing incompetent severely hurts the party. This is compounded by the fact that despite Wilson’s behaviour during the pandemic, much of it in defiance of his leader, he received no disciplinary action. It’s interesting that during a recent DUP meeting, minutes leaked flagged frustration at Wilson’s behaviour and the lack of sanctions against him. Sammy Wilson is just one example of a member of the party making hugely inappropriate comments in the past that have never been addressed, comments that in any other form of employment would result in immediate dismissal. If the DUP wants to be taken seriously, they have to bring discipline to the party.

Another key issue with the party is that it is too small, with less than 750 members and falling, this is both dwarfing its opportunities of promoting talent from within and building a party unreflective of Unionism and Northern Ireland. As long as membership reflects the fundamental Free Presbyterian church, then the DUP cannot reflect Unionism or articulate Unionist issues or even issues facing mainstream Northern Ireland.

The Assembly and Westminster teams need to be rebooted, there are too many old, tired and problematic faces of the past that should have long since been retired off. However, several promising Councillors within the DUP ranks should now be given an opportunity of promotion, there is speculation of Kathryn Owen a healthcare professional standing as an MLA in the next election, likely to replace Jim Wells, this would be a welcome change. The Wells’ fiasco has gone on for too long within the DUP, he has lost the whip but remains a party member and defies the party at every opportunity – the optics of this are confusing and further illustrate a party in disarray. I know people who have voted for Jim Wells, solely on the basis that he is the only realistic prospect of a Unionist being returned in South Down, however, as happens too often with the DUP, this mandate is used as a reason to oppose social issues such as same-sex marriage which it was never intended for.

This brings us to social issues such as same-sex marriage and so-called ‘gay conversion therapy’. Arlene Foster was recently derided when she indicated that she has some close friends who are gay. This revelation will not have been a surprise to anyone living in Fermanagh, however, what was a surprise is how the party has failed to progress on issues affecting the LGBTQ community during Foster’s tenure. This is a clear sign that Arlene Foster does not and has never really led the party, suggestions being that it’s the party officers behind the scenes who are making the key decisions. The DUP needs to catch up with the electorate on this issue, if they feel that opposing same-sex marriage and supporting ‘gay conversion therapy is a vote winner then they’re on a hiding to nothing. If the DUP ever took the time to talk to the electorate or to the people who vote for them, they would quickly realise that within Unionism their opposition to homosexuality has very little support. Nobody is expecting DUP members to spend their weekends in the Kremlin, however, a more pragmatic approach on LGBTQ issue is long overdue.

The Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) is still one of the biggest issues facing Unionism at present, the DUP must articulate a realistic and honest approach to the NIP, calls for protests, etc are yielding no returns, this is an issue that can only be addressed politically.

The DUP has an incredibly awkward and often uncomfortable relationship with Loyalists, a new approach is needed here to better engage with Loyalists and to ensure their voices are being listened to. The DUP cannot keep calling for Loyalist votes without addressing underlying issues that are engulfing Loyalist communities. The lack of political leadership from the DUP at the recent protests and riots was a shocking inditement of how detached the DUP has become from its base.

The DUP is battling on two fronts at the moment, one is against the TUV and the other is against the Alliance party. The TUV potential vote is much smaller than the Alliance party, however, the DUP has lurched further to the right to win back support from the TUV. Realistically the DUP cannot fully accommodate the positions of either party, however, it can position itself more on the centre to centre-right. Unionism cannot be led from the far right and the DUP positioning itself there is ludicrous.

Incompetence has been a huge area of concern for many concerning the DUP. Whilst Brexit and RHI have been well analysed, less so are the DUP’s performances within the Executive with several Ministers underperforming. The coupled with problems with the Westminster team and their inconsistent voting record and problems at DUP-controlled councils, the party of governance is turning into the party of incompetence. The DUP needs to address and rectify performance issues with their members, otherwise, the electorate will.

Leadership is crucial for the DUP, however, when a new leader is appointed, they have to be allowed to lead rather than simply taking orders from those behind the scenes. Aside from a new leadership team, the DUP has to offer the electorate effective policies that people across Northern Ireland can buy into. Lurching from crisis to crisis and from one mistake to another has created this existential crisis. The DUP should have regrouped and made changes after the 2019 Westminster elections, however, they did nothing. Ironically, the failing UUP has accelerated the decline of the DUP, the UUP’s inability to present a viable Unionist alternative has allowed the DUP to become complacent and take voters for granted.

DUP arrogance and ultimate incompetence over RHI and Brexit have turned many people off the DUP. When a simple acceptance of mistakes and a plan to rectify problems would have offset much bad feeling, the DUP instead continually refuses to accept any responsibility for any of their wrongdoing and frequently blame others instead – this translates into treating the public with contempt. Their arrogance has so encroached upon party members that they are absolved of repercussions for bad behaviour. DUP incompetence is offset at election time with roars of “stop Sinn Fein”. The Unionist electorate is at the point now where it has had enough, they feel the DUP has become a threat to the very Union they are trying to defend and with the constitutional question becoming more prominent an effective Unionist party is needed now more than ever. Whatever the DUP does, it cannot afford to do nothing, neither should it lose all sense of perceptive, it needs to take stock and evaluate. The DUP has finally started to listen, the changes needed are significant and fundamental, however for a party full of fundamentalists, are they able to fundamentally change the party or is the DUP destined to go the way of the dinosaurs?

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