Dr. Clare Rice is a postdoctoral researcher at Newcastle University: a specialist in power-sharing and Northern Ireland’s politics. She tweets as @Clare_Rice_. All views expressed are the author’s own.
The word ‘honeymoon’ evokes sentiments of a relaxing, happy and easy-going time. The big event is over, and in the bubble of positivity that follows, the focus shifts to the future. For Edwin Poots, this phase has been as good as non-existent since he became the new DUP Leader.
The unceremonious deposal of Arlene Foster, a leadership contest that exposed the depth of divisions within the party, and a continuing wait to see who will occupy the party’s new ministerial team have all left little room for any such phase to occur. The bounce that might have been expected has not happened, and while Poots may have an established track record of being an articulate and confident politician, this has struggled to come across at times since his election. Instead, we have seen a leader who has sometimes come across as someone who is still finding their feet.
This is perhaps not unreasonable given that Poots is only new into the job. The party is facing both internal and external challenges, and it is very different to be the person having to navigate talking about these difficulties under media questioning than it is to be part of a background chorus supporting another person facing them.
In simpler times, this process of bedding-in is not something most would consider to be anything close to remarkable. However, the DUP is currently being held under a different spotlight as a consequence of Doug Beattie becoming the new leader of the UUP. Now, not only is the party and its leadership being scrutinised, but it is being directly compared to the UUP in a way, and to a degree, that wouldn’t have been thought possible even a few months ago.
This is far from favourable for the DUP. It has allowed comparisons to be drawn between the two leaders, not least in terms of their politics, characters, personalities and leadership style. It also hasn’t helped that Beattie has enjoyed a discernible honeymoon phase as the new UUP leader in what has become known as the ‘Beattie Bounce’, further highlighting the extent to which one has been lacking for Poots.
This in turn raises a question about why the DUP has been struggling to attract the same level of revived enthusiasm. In part this is down to the party’s internal divisions. News of further resignations from the party, a warning from Donaldson that more may follow, and a blistering interview with DUP South Down Councillor, Glyn Hanna, all featuring on today’s edition of Good Morning Ulster, reinforcing just how deep these fault lines run, and how unhappy some are within the party at the direction the newly elected leader wants to take it.
In addition, a change in leadership will not erase the recent history of the party, particularly in relation to Brexit, the relationship with the Conservative Party and the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland. The challenges have been brewing within the party for some time, and have only been exacerbated by the process of instating a new leader.
Much of the disaffection that the UUP has been able to tap into has stemmed from DUP policies and actions, and there has been no evident change within the party as a result of the change in leadership. In contrast, the UUP has positioned itself as a political home for more socially liberal unionist voters, and the way this has been articulated and presented has generated a vibe that there is a new space opening for unionists within Northern Ireland’s party-political spectrum. It was thought that the potential was created for the DUP to widen its appeal in this regard when Paula Bradley, considered to be one of the more liberal figures within the party, was elected as the new Deputy Leader. However, this was put to bed last week when she was seemingly pressured to harden her public stance in relation to abortion.
Each party is feeding off the comparisons being made with the other, but it is the UUP that is benefitting from it. The UUP has been able to present a much more united, consolidated front than the DUP at present, and with that, Beattie commands a sense of authority in his leadership that Poots has not been able to claim since taking his new post.
What is perhaps the most difficult aspect of this for the DUP is that all this is happening within unionism. It is not something that can easily be dismissed as a comparison of apples and oranges – quite literally, green and orange arguments will not work to swing fortunes in this scenario. Even the Northern Ireland Protocol does not offer a clear enough space for distinction. Both parties are opposed to the Protocol, but when it comes to the 2024 vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly on the continued application of Articles 5-10 of the Protocol (as outlined in Article 18), there is no additional incentive to favour the DUP over the UUP. The DUP’s new ‘dual agenda’ on the Protocol and the Union implicitly recognises this in calling for unionist unity and suggesting the establishment of a Unionist Convention.
Instead, the primary areas of distinction between the two parties lie in social matters. This is where the momentum fuelling the ‘Beattie Bounce’ has been strongest. The episode with Paula Bradley demonstrates that the party is set to continue to take its direction from within its existing voter base, and that it is more comfortable to move further to the right in protecting these votes than it is to contemplate anything that would give the impression of taking steps towards the left. In contrast, the UUP is looking beyond its existing parameters for its direction, including the space currently occupied by disaffected DUP voters.
In this way, the ‘Beattie Bounce’ can’t easily be dismissed as something that is only of significance for the UUP. The DUP is under pressure within the unionist political field, and this is being compounded (and exacerbated) by internal struggles. Any remaining chance there might have been for Poots to enjoy a honeymoon period as the new DUP leader was firmly eradicated by the UUP’s change in leadership.
Far from being an ideal set of circumstances at any time, it is unavoidable that this is all happening with an election around the corner. The time that might otherwise be afforded to a new leader to develop within their role is simply not there, nor is there a reciprocal bounce that the DUP can benefit from. The party was caught between a rock and a hard place – it knew the electoral success aspired towards in the next Assembly election would be unlikely to achieve with Foster at the helm, but it was a gamble to change this so close to an election.
All of this is said with a deep awareness that the DUP and UUP are not the only parties in the picture, and it can’t be considered that Poots and Beattie are commencing their tenures with parties at the same starting points. Further, the TUV and Alliance parties offer additional options for unionist voters, making the wider dynamics at play much more complex. Importantly, there is also the caveat that the ripple effect of the ‘Beattie Bounce’ is contingent on the party being able to make the most of the opportunity before it – the current uptick in interest could easily fade as quickly as it has emerged.
Put simply, it is not in the DUP’s interests for an election to be called any earlier than is necessary. Treading the path between placating internal discontent, ensuring stability at Stormont – something likely to include follow-through on Irish language provisions contained within the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ agreement – and retaining existing electoral support will be no easy feat for the new leader. It is difficult to see how that pathway can be cut in a way that will work in the party’s favour in the limited time available.
But ready or not, an election is coming, and it is tough to say what the threshold will be for determining whether or not the DUP’s gamble has paid off.
Currently, it looks as though breaking even will be a win.
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