The DUP have forgotten that divided parties don’t inspire confidence and certainly don’t win elections…

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has experienced a rollercoaster journey since becoming the predominant force within Unionism. While they have enjoyed significant triumphs, such as holding the balance of power in Westminster and securing £1 billion in additional investment for Northern Ireland, these achievements have been overshadowed by scandals, poor decision-making, internal divisions, and general disarray. The repercussions of the DUP’s actions extend far beyond party lines, causing many Unionists to question whether the party can ever regain its stability and direction. For Unionists, whether affiliated with the DUP or not, the party’s turmoil has left a lingering uncertainty about the future of Unionism itself.

It’s safe to assume that regardless of how the DUP fares in the upcoming Westminster election, they will remain the dominant force within Unionism post-election. However, the party is acutely aware that support is no longer guaranteed. Recent elections have highlighted a downward trajectory for the DUP, culminating in Sinn Féin overtaking them as the largest party in Northern Ireland. This electoral vulnerability underscores a significant disconnect between the DUP and mainstream Unionism. If the DUP aims to retain its dominance, it must urgently address this divide and reconnect with its base.

Paradoxically, the decline of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) has, in many ways, created problems for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Without a viable rival within Unionism, the DUP has not had to sharpen its game. The main rival the DUP faces in recent years, and once again in this election, is the Alliance Party, a challenger the DUP has struggled to deal with. Disaffected DUP supporters have drifted towards the Alliance Party as much as they have to the garden centre on polling day—a trend the DUP has not fully understood, much less countered. Instead, the party has primarily focused on the threat posed by the diminutive Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), a party consistently rejected at the polls. This focus has inadvertently elevated the TUV’s status while alienating many within broader Unionism who feel disenfranchised by the DUP’s tunnel vision.

For many years, I have been urging the DUP to address its fundamental problems, particularly the numerous scandals that have plagued the party. While the charges against Jeffrey Donaldson are a matter for the judicial system, they have undoubtedly shaken the party to its core. Beyond Donaldson’s case, the DUP has faced serious scandals involving former councillors William Walker, convicted of child grooming, and Thomas Hogg, convicted of sexual offences against a teenage boy. These incidents, alongside controversies such as the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme, the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) scandal, various financial irregularities, and the infamous actions of Ian Paisley, paint a troubling picture of the party. The DUP’s loose associations with loyalist paramilitaries continue to raise concerns. Councillor Paul Porter’s participation in a parade honouring a UDA member and Tyler Hoey’s social media activity, including liking a tweet praising the Greysteel massacre, only add to the party’s long list of issues. Typically, these scandals are not addressed in a way that restores public confidence or enforces internal discipline. There are exceptions, such as the party’s handling of the Jeffrey Donaldson charges, which included suspending his membership, showing the party can take decisive action under difficult circumstances. However, the prevailing perception is that many scandals involving the DUP go without repercussions. This is a critical issue the party must address if it hopes to rebuild trust and maintain its position within Unionism.

One critical lesson the DUP seems to have forgotten from the Good Friday Agreement years of the UUP is that divided parties don’t inspire confidence and certainly don’t win elections. Reports of internal factions, infighting, leaked party documents, and public briefings against the party by individual members have plagued the DUP. The culmination of this disarray was the livestreaming of a private party meeting ahead of the acceptance of the ‘Safeguarding the Union’ deal, an extreme breach of party discipline that proved both embarrassing and damaging. Although public spats and information leaks have quietened, the party never identified the culprits behind these breaches, much less took corrective action. Instead, the backroom team appeared flatfooted and bungling in their attempts to address the issue, making it almost certain that these leaks will reoccur as quickly as they stopped.

One of the most critical issues facing the DUP is its decision-making skills. The collapse of Stormont in protest of the Protocol was initially popular among many Unionists, but the DUP’s lack of a clear plan put them in a difficult position. The inevitable return to Stormont left the party shortchanged, and their exaggerated promises allowed the TUV to capitalise on their shortcomings. The DUP should have been more realistic about their goals and better prepared their base for the return to Stormont, promising to address issues within the deal. The negative impact of Stormont’s collapse on Northern Ireland should have been a compelling reason for its return, but the DUP lost control of this narrative to fringe groups like the TUV. The confidence and supply arrangement with the Conservatives was another misjudgement by the DUP. Rather than focus on getting the best deal for Northern Ireland from the Brexit withdrawal discussions, the DUP appeared besotted by the Conservatives and took their eye off the bigger picture, leading in part to the creation of the Protocol which has been the lightning rod for Unionist anger ever since. The DUP has continued to get tangled in this mess as they fluctuate between “the sea border being removed” and “the sea border needs to be removed.” Even with regards to smaller issues, the DUP has often been found wanting. Their sloppiness in candidate selection meant that in both North Down and Fermanagh and South Tyrone they were caught flatfooted when an election was called and had to hand the batons to Alex Easton and the UUP. The DUP is likely to face further criticism if Unionism fails to make gains or present a reasonable challenge in these constituencies, as many Unionists felt that as the lead party, the DUP should be leading the charge and not bowing out.

The DUP is renowned for its effectiveness in delivering results on the ground, a reputation that rivals Sinn Féin’s similar track record. Having personally witnessed this on numerous occasions, it is clear why voters continue to support the DUP despite its flaws. However, notable exceptions to this trend exist, and the party must remain vigilant in addressing them. Some MPs, MLAs, and councillors within the DUP have developed a reputation for being anonymous and unproductive. This issue demands immediate attention, especially with the party currently having only eight MPs. It is crucial that these representatives are visible and actively fulfilling their roles, supported by their teams, including MLAs and councillors.

In contrast, parties like the SDLP (with two MPs) and Alliance (with one MP) have successfully enhanced their visibility and impact in Westminster. Throughout this election campaign, the SDLP has effectively highlighted the benefits delivered by their MPs, providing a clear example for the DUP to follow. With a compact team of eight, there is no room for inefficiency or individualistic approaches. Instead, the focus should be on cohesive teamwork and impactful representation to effectively serve their constituents. Moving forward, the DUP needs to ensure that all its elected representatives are actively engaged, productive, and responsive to the needs of their constituents. This approach not only strengthens the party’s position but also reinforces its credibility and appeal among voters. In the past, too many within the DUP, particularly in the Westminster team, have engaged in public actions that have been damaging to the party and Unionism in general. Having a presence in Westminster to promote Northern Ireland and strengthen its place within the Union should be the DUP’s motivating factor, rather than egotistical solo runs that leave large sections of the electorate craving a change in representation.

The background team within the DUP is frequently discussed, and there has been ongoing talk about the potential benefits of a reboot, though these changes have yet to materialise. Evidence suggests that such a refresh is long overdue, as the party faces issues with internal discipline, sloppy communication (despite some recent improvements in online content), and a lack of clear direction. In any organisation, including the DUP, it is unhealthy to have the same individuals in the same positions for extended periods. A dynamic and professional approach across various areas is essential for the party’s growth and effectiveness. Revitalising the background team could address these challenges, fostering a more disciplined, cohesive, and forward-thinking organisation.

The DUP needs to better understand and connect with its base, as it frequently oscillates between countering the TUV and worrying about the Alliance Party without fully addressing either threat. To remain relevant, the party must broaden its appeal, especially among younger voters and women, and offer a vision that goes beyond slogans like “stop Sinn Féin” or “we’re the only Unionist party who can win.” With over 20 years as the leading Unionist party, the DUP should highlight a successful track record and promise further achievements. If they’re not doing this, or indeed can’t, the question arises: why not? Unionism has consistently rejected the TUV, yet the DUP focuses much of its energy on this smaller party rather than engaging with a broader and more diverse electorate. If the DUP continues to fixate on the TUV, it risks achieving TUV-like results. To move forward, the DUP needs to articulate a clear, aspirational vision that resonates with a wider audience. Emphasising unity, progress, and tangible successes will help the party solidify its position and attract a more diverse supporter base. The stark reality is that the DUP’s purpose is to make Northern Ireland a thriving part of the UK. However, too often it has been seen as a damaging entity within Northern Ireland politics, driving people away from Unionism with its actions and rhetoric. By focusing on making Northern Ireland work and showcasing its contributions to the region’s success, the DUP can redefine its role and reinforce its relevance in a rapidly changing political landscape.

One potential bright spot for the DUP is the appointment of Gavin Robinson as leader. While currently low-profile and needing to grow into the role and increase his visibility, Robinson is well-regarded and respected among many Unionists, with an appeal that extends beyond the DUP. His leadership began under extremely challenging circumstances, earning him significant respect and highlighting his potential to revitalise and rebrand Unionism for the future. A key initial challenge for Robinson is holding onto his Westminster seat. Successfully doing so would solidify his position as the leader of Unionism and allow him to set a new course for the party. Another positive development for the DUP is the performance of Emma Little-Pengelly in her role as Deputy First Minister. She has received widespread praise for her energetic, outreach-focused, and positive approach, making the role her own. Her success provides a strong foundation for the DUP to build on, further enhancing the party’s image and effectiveness.

The DUP faces an uphill battle in the upcoming election. Dogged by poor decisions, scandals, and internal divisions, coupled with an unhappy and disconnected electorate, the party is at a crossroads. Many Unionists have been left embarrassed, bewildered, and sometimes angry by the DUP’s actions. It’s clear that the party has often lost sight of the bigger picture, engaged in needless battles, and, at times, acted as a damaging force within Northern Ireland. Whatever lessons emerge from the forthcoming elections, the DUP must learn from them and adapt. One thing is certain: continuing on the current path will lead to irreversible decline. The age-old question remains, will the DUP finally sort itself out?

 


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