Northern Ireland

Analysis: Have the DUP religious dinosaurs left the party before they cause its extinction?

The relatively liberal Gavin Robinson performed well in the Westminster election compared to most DUP veteran hardliners

Ian Paisley lost his seat in North Antrim. PICTURE: NIALL CARSON/PA (Niall Carson/Niall Carson/PA Wire)

You could almost feel sorry for the DUP. Rewind a few short years and the party was at the height of its power, securing ten seats in the 2017 general election, with a whopping 36% share of the vote. Its strong Westminster representation enabled the party to negotiate a confidence and supply deal with Theresa May’s minority government, while it also flexed its muscles to thwart the ‘backstop’ deal with the EU.

But it’s all gone down hill since. Two Westminster elections and four leaders later, the DUP is a mere shadow of its former self. Perhaps nothing represented its recent steady slippage better than the unseating of Ian Paisley in North Antrim.

‘Junior’ lost his seat to Jim Allister, ideologically to the right of the defeated candidate and once a close ally of his late father, yet it’s fair to say that results across the north, which saw the DUP lose three seats, represents not only the decline of the party as a whole but the fundamentalist, hardline ideology on which it was founded in 1971.

Mr Allister’s victory can be attributed more to a personal vote and a rejection of Ian Paisley’s complacency than an endorsement of his purist, no surrender politics.

Contrast the performance in Thursday’s election of uncompromising veterans Sammy Wilson, Gregory Campbell and the aforementioned Paisley with that of party leader Gavin Robinson, who saw off a strong challenge from Alliance’s Naomi Long in East Belfast, adding more than 800 votes to his majority.

DUP leader Gavin Robinson with his wife Lindsay after retaining his seat in the East Belfast. PICTURE: LIAM MCBURNEY/PA

The East Belfast MP is the DUP’s most liberal leader to date, and carries none of the baggage of his predecessors. Even pre-rape charges Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, while not a Free Presbyterian, celebrated his UDR past and notional opposition to the Good Friday Agreement, ensuring he was very much regarded as one of the old guard.

His would-be successor in Lagan Valley, Jonathan Buckley, too comes from the hardline wing of the party but his defeat to Sorcha Eastwood suggests the electorate, certainly in the more metropolitan constituencies around Belfast, is tiring of the traditional brand of true blue unionism. Notably, however, Carla Lockhart increased her share of the vote in Upper Bann, taking votes from the more liberal Ulster Unionist candidate.

Yet the influence of religion on DUP policy, and the associated conservative opinions on social issues, has waned in recent decades in a process that accelerated in the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement, when the party’s representatives took seats in the Stormont executive, and in 2006 when Ian Paisley agreed to share power with Sinn Féin.

The then first minister Paul Givan’s 2021 resignation from the Free Presbyterian Church over a dispute around his attendance at the Northern Ireland interdenominational centenary church service in Armagh, brought the number of DUP MLAs who are full members of the denomination down to single figures, while the 2022 assembly election saw their numbers decline further.

The DUP now stands at a crossroads. In an increasingly secular world, where its uncompromising stance on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion has seemingly alienated more voters than it has attracted, the need to liberalise and modernise is more urgent. Surely lessons have also been learned from its stance on Brexit, an issue which has singularly caused more damage to the DUP’s credibility than any other.

If Gavin Robinson had lost East Belfast, the project of modernisation may well have foundered, however, his victory provides an opportunity to present a more tolerant version of unionism – one which is no less committed to the UK, just less fixated with flags, marches and what people get up to in the privacy of their own homes.

If the dinosaurs prevail then extinction is on the cards.