Andrew McQuillan

Can the DUP survive?

Can the DUP survive?
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A 36-person strong electorate will meet in Belfast this Friday to elect Arlene Foster’s replacement as leader of the Democratic Unionist party. 

The choice facing the assembled ranks of the party’s MPs and members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) is, amusingly, between two men who share the same office in Lisburn: the Lagan Valley MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Edwin Poots, the Stormont agriculture minister.

Such is the DUP way, the two candidates are under orders not to speak to the media or undertake any form of public-facing promotional activity for the duration of the contest. However, a document sent by Poots to his colleagues setting out his vision for the future was leaked to the Northern Irish media.

Titled a 'Manifesto for Reform', it states that if elected Poots would not take on the role of first minister — that title would go to another DUP MLA — and he would instead focus on revitalising the party. It commits to a fundamental renewal of the DUP’s structures and strategy, pledges to 'systematically undermine' the Northern Ireland Protocol and 'expose republican propaganda and shameless populism'.

All of this is manna from heaven for those who desire a more muscular unionism and an end to the cocktail of chaos and confusion that characterised the party under Foster. In the manifesto, Poots contends 'we can no longer sustain the ad-hoc approach that has been a feature of recent years with policy on the hoof and with little regard to the wishes of elected members'.

Poots is popularly viewed as the hardliner in the contest whereas Donaldson is classed as the 'moderate' — at least in DUP terms. Both are faced with the challenge of retaining the party’s base — demoralised and alienated by the Protocol — and expanding its electoral appeal, not an easy feat given the legacy left by Foster.

Kremlinological tweaks to the DUP do of course matter but they will only be successful if they are alive to the electoral, political and social reality facing unionists in Ulster today.

Any leader who decides that stopping the rot means a return to what is generously termed 'traditional unionism' would be fundamentally mistaken; while it might be reassuring to engage in performative, rally round the flag unionism within the confines of an internal party contest, it stores up trouble for the future.

Pursuing policies that will win short-term credit with those unionists and loyalists who are furious over the Protocol and believe nationalism is in the ascendancy is loaded with risk. Grandiose claims about defeating the Protocol are all well and good but what happens when it remains unchanged? How will the new man in charge sell it to the base? How can they claim that they are standing up to nationalism and republicanism when culturally charged issues like an Irish language act are ushered through with DUP acquiescence?

Given they are already viewed with a degree of scepticism for their contribution to the party’s current predicament, it would be unwise for either Poots or Donaldson to oversell and underdeliver; loyalism leaving political unionism’s tent after one betrayal too many would be problematic on several levels.

Conversely, all the evidence shows that the main electoral threat to the DUP comes from the centre. This is where the bulk of the votes it has lost since 2017 have drifted, particularly towards the middle of the road Alliance party.

A further threat may be posed by the Ulster Unionist party, which is also searching for a new leader after the resignation of Steve Aiken at the weekend. The frontrunner in the race to lead unionism’s second-largest party is Doug Beattie, an articulate former captain in the Royal Irish Regiment.

Beattie represents a fresher, more sympathetic and different style of unionism. He is vocal in his support of expanding LGBT rights in Northern Ireland — he brought forward the motion calling for a ban on gay conversion therapy which precipitated Arlene Foster’s demise — and is vehement in his criticism of the DUP’s Brexit approach. Should the DUP’s approach further alienate the middle ground, they may inadvertently breathe life into their old rivals.

To keep the DUP competitive in Northern Ireland, Poots and Donaldson must avoid the easy temptation to swing to the extremes in the interests of short-term expediency. Poots may push for a younger colleague to take on the role of first minister and pursue a more dynamic course at Stormont while he attends to party matters.

Yet that will be simple window dressing if the DUP itself does not change and the party is the tail wagging the dog in such an arrangement. Whoever its new leader is facing a fundamental, strategic choice: embrace the ever-diminishing circles of old certainties or think differently. Whether its elected representatives are willing to make the jump will become clear on Friday.