Northern Ireland news

Lee Reynolds: What now for the DUP?

Arlene Foster. Jonathan Brady/PA Wire.
Lee Reynolds

Platform: Lee Reynolds, former special adviser to DUP first minister Arlene Foster

THE DUP, the largest party in Northern Ireland and of unionism, had its first contested leadership election.

There was much that should have been the focus of the debate on the future of unionism and how it could maintain its primary position. This didn’t happen partly because of the questionable rules of the contest.

First, we should have been discussing the ongoing shift in voter attitudes. An electorate that thinks of politics here as a binary choice is no more.

About two-thirds (and falling) still see it as a battle between unionism and nationalism but about one third (and growing) don’t.

This new third ‘tribe’ don’t accept the old media and political dynamic that an election equals a referendum. This shift represents a challenge to unionism and nationalism as well as the media.

The positive for unionism is that any deep dive into the data shows the majority of this third community are ‘referendum’ Unionists. This leads to the obvious questions for ‘political’ unionism. Why don’t they vote unionist in elections? How can unionism change that? How does it retain the support of ‘referendum’ unionists?

This was not what some in the DUP’s 36 strong Electoral College wanted to consider. Instead they chose to imagine a DUP base that owes more to 1991 than 2021.

Second, we should have discussed the basket of political issues – the Protocol, Covid impacts, New Decade New Approach etc – each with their own challenges and complexities to deal with.

In public, it was these policy issues that appeared to be the trigger for the defenestration of Arlene Foster, though more base internal resentments (legitimate and illegitimate) were the real meat.

Partly DUP princelings coming to avenge their forefathers and claim their entitlement but supplemented by MLAs genuinely concerned about the upcoming elections.

The theory was straightforward. When facing difficulties before, the DUP had switched leaders to a new respected or popular figure. However, this misdiagnosed the problem.

It is the DUP brand that is in greater trouble. Arlene Foster’s popularity had dropped but not as much the DUP’s.

She was adding a few percentage points not costing the DUP some. This was demonstrated by the immediate drop in party support when she was removed.

The events of the past two months will have harmed the brand further. The 'Poots putsch' of Foster will have a toxic legacy, especially amongst women voters.

As Peter Robinson has argued the same result could have been achieved without the public brutality but a few consciously chose it to be that way – the actions of lesser men.

Does the choice of new leader, Edwin Poots, restore the brand?

Whether it is the private polling by Jeffrey Donaldson’s campaign or LucidTalk, the message is clear and the scale too wide to be sampling problems. He has negative favourability ratings amongst all age groups, both genders, DUP voters and voters of all other parties.

In the public mind, he is part Jeremy Corbyn part Tom Elliott. This is not a recipe to keep voters, attract new first preferences nor transfers in an Assembly election. 19 people may have drunk the kool-aid but there is no independent evidence that voters have or will.

Then we have the Vote Poots - Get Paisley dynamic. This will drag the DUP brand down even further.

Third, we should have been discussing issues of internal change. It is a DUP hymn sheet I like to think I helped write but it should not have been to the near exclusion of everything else.

Also it’s a curiosity that the candidate who actually promised more substantive internal change, Jeffrey Donaldson, lost. This reinforces the likelihood of it proving to be about a new ‘elect’ replacing an old one, not real change.

Faced with all this, a new leader needs to have a different offer with a substantive plan.

Yet, policy is to remain the same. If they have a plan, it appears as well developed as the American plan for the Invasion of Iraq. A collection of assumptions that everything would fall into place the way they wanted and when it doesn’t, go into denial, wishful thinking and blaming others.

All this has substantially increased the likelihood that the 2008 Dromore by-election will be repeated across Northern Ireland.

The DUP, eaten from the left by the UUP and Alliance and the right by the TUV, loses and all the consequences that flow from that.

The DUP benefited from a generational shift in voters. However, it may now have created circumstances in which it will be the loser from another such shift. But maybe, as was done to others, this will be dismissed as a peripheral view.

DUP leader Edwin Poots (right) during a press conference at Stormont with First Minister designate Paul Givan after announcing his first ministerial team..

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