DUP chokes on its own history

By Tom McGurk (for the Sunday Business Post)

Elections are supposed to provide answers. When the people speak, the politicians are supposed to respond accordingly. Not so in the North.

Elections are supposed to provide answers.

When the people speak, the politicians are supposed to respond accordingly. Not so in the North.

In keeping with the historically dysfunctional democratic nature of this part of Ireland, last week’s election left all the big questions still unanswered.

Rather than creating a political agenda for future devolved local government, it has merely created a bargaining agenda for what else the DUP can wrestle from the British government before March 26.

The party is seeking two things: firstly, a financial package it can present to its electorate to begin treating the basket case that is the North’s economy; and secondly, more concessions from Sinn Fein.

Perhaps the first can be easily sorted, given Tony Blair’s desire to seal devolved government in the North into his political legacy.

The second is the real problem. The prospect of acting as midwife to a devolved government with Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister and three other Sinn Fein members as government ministers has created a nightmare for the DUP.

And the closer March 26 comes, the deeper that nightmare grows. The problem is that the DUP is not essentially a political party at all, but a political rump dedicated to maintaining the old Northern unionist status quo.

And to make matters worse, the party is composed equally of a religious and a political following; a sort of amalgam of Taliban and technocrat.

The DUP’s crisis arises because the party is attempting to maintain the old agenda while simultaneously seeking power within the new political dispensation.

To add to its problems, it is becoming two parties in one - the old original husk of the Free Presbyterian Church-led sectarian party (what was once the Protestant Unionist Party), and the new shoots - ambitious unionists who have deserted the once-dominant UUP.

While Ian Paisley is around, this strange political hybrid can be contained, but after Paisley is gone, the situation may be very different. The crisis will emerge when the leadership question arises - a Paisley Jnr vs Peter Robinson contest might well ignite the DUP’s maverick constituents.

In the immediate future, March 26 is bearing down on the DUP, and this is heightening the party’s internal tensions.

Paisley’s obsession with Sinn Fein’s ‘‘democratic respectability’’ is really the leader playing for more time while he tries to sort out the internal tensions within his party.

Without a fundamental acceptance by the DUP that joining and becoming empowered by the new political agenda also requires a full acceptance of the equality of Sinn Fein’s democratic mandate, the nightmare continues.

Unable to spell this out, Paisley’s task is to try to sell the triumph of the DUP in devolved government as meaning the political emasculation of Sinn Fein - and that, of course, is utter nonsense. On the ground in the North, as the domestic crises over water charges, domestic rates, education, health and rural planning become more and more intense, the demand for a return to devolution is huge.

However naive the hope may turn out to be, there is a belief everywhere that locally elected ministers may be able to solve this problem. Whether Gordon Brown at the Treasury agrees may be another matter.

I cannot imagine what the popular reaction will be, should Paisley’s DUP fail to deliver on March 26. Where once there was indifference to local politics after the collapse of the last power-sharing executive, this time round there is genuine and popular desire for a return to devolution.

Equally, the economic consequences of failure may be considerable. Whatever about hopes of equalising corporation tax either side of the border, the business community was vocal throughout the campaign on the need for devolution.

As Sinn Fein’s support grows, the SDLP weakens. The Sinn Fein success in South Antrim, where Mitchel McLaughlin was parachuted in to top the poll, and especially in Upper Bann, where two Sinn Fein candidates did extremely well, points not only to growing Sinn Fein support but to significant demographic changes.

With ten Westminster constituencies unionist and eight nationalist, Upper Bann - once the bastion of unionism and indeed of David Trimble - may soon be nationalist.

Also significant was that the percentage difference between the total unionist first preferences and the nationalist first preferences was at its closest ever at only 4 per cent. Sinn Fein is now the largest political party in the greater Belfast area, and the number of its Assembly seats means that it will - like the DUP - have a veto on legislation that it does not support.

Reg Empey’s leadership of the UUP may be a casualty of that party’s disastrous electoral performance. The UUP clearly needs reinvention and a new generation of leadership. However, if Paisley’s party chokes on creating a new political opportunity, there is the real prospect of the renaissance of the UUP as a major player.

Against all of these political difficulties, there emerges from the North a real sense of an electorate way ahead of its politicians.

The peace has brought about remarkable changes already. There is even a growing generation to whom the war years are mere history. People want to get on with their lives; they look across the border at the quality of life in the Republic, and they want the same.

The overall picture after these elections is that the unionist and the nationalist blocs are now equal in size for the first time. Demographics and the potential offered by the new politics have bypassed history. For all of their political success, it’s very strange territory for the DUP to find themselves in. The pressure on them is immense both from inside and outside the party.

As a close observer of the scene for years, I have the greatest doubts that the DUP can deliver. It simply can’t satisfactorily answer the question why, if in 1972 power-sharing with the SDLP was so utterly unacceptable, the party is now contemplating it with the political successors of the IRA, 35 sad years and so many dead later.

How exactly did that “save Ulster”?

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