Fair_deal has recently written an excellent article on things the DUP should do to minimise further damage at the Westminster and Stormont elections. I would disagree with very little of it, though (I suspect like fair_deal) I would like the DUP in addition to move its political stance. The DUP’s discourse about, and attacks on the TUV have always been fairly vitriolic as indeed have the TUV’s on the DUP. It sometimes seems as if the DUP feel that the TUV have no right to exist and that that is what helps breed the vitriol: the TUV’s hatred of the DUP is equally problematic but I will not discuss that here.
When Dr. Paisley first set up the party along with Dessie Boal all those years ago, it was one of a number of unionist parties set up to be more politically hard line than the then dominant Ulster Unionist Party. For some time in the early 1970s it was unclear which of these assorted parties would become dominant but eventually through political skill as well as a degree of good fortune the DUP managed to become the natural home of the more constitutionally, if not necessarily socio-economically, “right wing.”
The DUP excelled as the party of choice for harder line unionists: it, and its leader, were always there to denounce any betrayal by the British Government; any meddling by the Irish; comment from the Americans; or, possibly most importantly, Lundy-ism by the UUP. In that they were in a way supported even by some in the UUP. The DUP could almost be seen as keeping the UUP “honest” and indeed if they ever tried to “do a Lundy,” there would be the DUP as the bulwark: the place of political refuge for unionists throughout the troubles and after the ceasefires. As one of my friends once almost blasphemously suggested “We are safe beneath Paisley’s wings.”
In that context the DUP and its leader revelled in their image as the party of “Never, never, never, never.” Compared to the equally constitutionally hard line Jim Molyneaux, Paisley nevertheless appeared firmer: a rock on which successive attempts by the British government or anyone else to create a compromise disadvantageous to unionists would flounder. Throughout the troubles and afterwards most liberal unionists, especially those around Belfast, may have publicly decried Paisley, may have voted UUP but privately had huge regard for The Big Man who would never let them down: a regard demonstrated in crushing European election victory after election victory. After the announcement of the Euro result when Dr. Paisley burst into the Doxology they might have tutted but they knew they had done the needful and kept the union safe.
That is the narrative the DUP leader and the party appear to have bought into completely. They genuinely seemed to see themselves as the bulwark, the defenders of Ulster: the idea that anyone might be more hard line then them could not be taken seriously. Occasionally someone arose who tried to be such a thing. However, if they were loyalist paramilitaries they could never gain support due to their violence: alternatively they seemed to be firebrands (often thrown out of the DUP for being mad) like George Seawright who could easily be dismissed as political lunatics.
It is in that context that the DUP’s approach to the TUV threat needs to be seen. To some in the DUP the fact that they agreed to enter power sharing must mean that it was the best deal conceivably achievable. For the DUP to have agreed to anything less would have been Lundy-ism and since the DUP are (in some of their own members’ analysis) incapable of being Lundies, then by definition, the deal is the best possible. It is of course a circular argument but if one buys into it, it is actually fairly persuasive. It is, I would submit, a similar argument to that which quite often occurs in the fundamentalist Protestant religious circles in which many of the same sort of people move. The idea that places other than Northern Ireland and churches other than our own fundamentalist evangelical ones here in NI could be equally as bible based; equally as morally uncompromising; equally as fundamentalist is an odd one and almost unbelievable.
Once one understands this, one can make sense of some of their approach to the TUV. If the TUV say that the deal is flawed and a sell out, that can only mean that the TUV are, at best, a bunch of lunatics. Since the unionist population have, throughout recent political history, been very good at spotting political lunatics and not voting for them, it followed that the DUP could effectively ignore the lunatic fringe. The fact that the TUV was led by a serious former DUP politician in Jim Allister who was far from a lunatic and also far from a loyalist firebrand like Seawright was simply ignored. Since Allister had left the DUP and denounced them, that must mean that he was a lunatic. The possibility that the DUP had shifted position from their previously held one was either impossible and completely denied, or if one allowed a little insight to supervene, was indicative of the clear fact that the deal was the best one imaginable and any other decision would have spelt disaster for Ulster. For the DUP to have agreed to anything less would be a sell out and since the DUP did not do sell outs and were not Lundies; any deal was the best one. To misquote: Carlsberg do not do … but if they did they would be the best in the world.
Using a very similar analysis, if the TUV were not lunatics then they must be Lundies themselves. Since the DUP was the repository of all unionist political righteousness, for any party to be bitterly opposed to them,that party must be Lundies. However, since the TUV claimed to be to the constitutional right of the DUP if they were not Lundies in the conventional sense they must be a different form of Lundy: closet republicans, intent on destroying the best agreement conceivably possible (best because it was created by the DUP). Hence, the easy claim that the TUV if not Lundies in the conventional sense or lunatics must be closet republicans or if not that then accidental unintentional closet republicans.
These narratives have proven themselves to be spectacularly ineffective as a basis for regaining that segment of the DUP vote which has defected to the TUV (a little over one third of the DUP vote at its 2005-7 zenith). They have of course been ineffective because of the unionist electorate’s collective ability to spot political lunatics and the decision that Jim Allister and the TUV are not actually mad. In addition most of the DUP electorate can see that the St Andrews’ Agreement is a compromise: a pretty good compromise for unionists maybe, but a compromise nonetheless.
After Dromore the DUP completely failed to heed the warnings and collectively decided that it was a flash in the pan; that it was too small an election to draw any conclusions from and that the whole thing was essentially irrelevant. That was an enormous mistake and that mistake led to not taking the TUV threat seriously enough; we saw the results of that error written on Diane Dodds’s face as she listened to Jim Allister’s speech on election night.
It seemed after the European elections that the DUP might be facing up to the task in hand: Robinson declared his intention to act on double jobbing; there was an acceptance that the DUP needed to listen to the electorate and appear less arrogant. However, with time and circumstances I am not entirely sure that the DUP have genuinely altered their position and again we hear the excuses for the European result coming out: Dodds was a poor candidate whereas Allister was a good one; the expenses and double jobbing scandals; a general lack of confidence in politics and politicians; the unimportance of the European election; that it was a flash in the pan. All of these may be true: however, they do not disguise the simple fact that over a third of their electorate deserted the DUP and that was the third of which they were once most sure.
The DUP may be able to bounce back: they may yet come through to destroy the TUV and inflict further damage on the UUP. However, if they are to do that they need to think about their messages. In doing so they need to think about their problems: apparently they are doing so and have asked consultants from various places to help. I do not know if they have done so but they would be wise to heed fair_deal’s advice especially in thinking about and understanding the core votes they lost to the TUV. If they can manage that then they may be able to defeat the TUV. However, one thing they are going to have to stop is pretending that the TUV in general and Allister in particular are lunatics or closet republicans: that trick failed totally last time.