Northern Ireland

The DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) - An explainer

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is the leader of the DUP. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is the leader of the DUP. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is the leader of the DUP. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Who are the Democratic Unionist Party?

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is the largest unionist political party in Northern Ireland.

The DUP has traditionally received the support of voters from the Protestant/unionist/loyalist (PUL) community and throughout the Troubles was seen as one of the most hardline political parties in Northern Ireland.

Constitutional status

Pro-United Kingdom

Who is the party leader?

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has led the party since 2021.

DUP leadership through the years - from Ian Paisley to Peter Robinson

Peter Robinson pictured with DUP founder and his predecessor as party leader, Ian Paisley, in 1996. Picture by Pacemaker
Peter Robinson pictured with DUP founder and his predecessor as party leader, Ian Paisley, in 1996. Picture by Pacemaker Peter Robinson pictured with DUP founder and his predecessor as party leader, Ian Paisley, in 1996. Picture by Pacemaker

The DUP has had four leaders since it was founded by Ian Paisley in 1971. He resigned in 2008 and Peter Robinson took over, followed by Arlene Foster in 2015 and in 2021 Edwin Poots led the party for four weeks before being ousted and replaced with incumbent leader Jeffrey Donaldson.

How many DUP MPs, MLAs and councillors are there?

There are eight DUP MPs in Westminster following the 2019 general election. They are Sammy Wilson, Gavin Robinson, Jeffrey Donaldson, Jim Shannon, Gregory Campbell, Paul Girvan, Carla Lockhart and Ian Paisley. Former deputy leader Nigel Dodds also sits in the House of Lords at Westminster.

There are 25 MLAs at Stormont although there is no devolved government as the DUP used its veto to collapse the power-sharing institutions.

The party has 122 local government councillors.

Is the DUP the largest political party in Northern Ireland?

No, Sinn Fein is the largest political party in Northern Ireland following the 2023 Assembly election.

The DUP lost control of the Stormont Assembly to Sinn Fein for the first time with the republican party winning 27 seats, two more than the DUP.

It marked the first time since the formation of Northern Ireland that a unionist party did not hold majority control in the government.

In 2003 the DUP had overtaken the UUP as the largest unionist party in Northern Ireland and by 2005 had cemented that position winning nine parliamentary seats at Westminster, while the UUP won only one seat.

Former UUP leader David Trimble and Ian Paisley marching down the Garvaghy Road in 1995
Former UUP leader David Trimble and Ian Paisley marching down the Garvaghy Road in 1995 Former UUP leader David Trimble and Ian Paisley marching down the Garvaghy Road in 1995

What are the DUP's main policies?

The DUP staunchly supports the maintenance of the union between Britain and Northern Ireland.

It strongly supported the Brexit campaign for the UK to leave the European Union.

However, the party is often regarded as being ultra-conservative on social issues with many of its political policies being linked to the strong religious beliefs held by many DUP members.

The party is opposed to same-sex marriage and abortion rights.

Does the DUP have elected representatives outside Northern Ireland?

Then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern hands then Northern Ireland First Minister Ian Paisley a 300-year-old musket during their visit to the historic Battle of the Boyne site in Co Meath in 2007. Both men returned the following year to open a visitor centre. Picture by Niall Carson/PA Wire
Then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern hands then Northern Ireland First Minister Ian Paisley a 300-year-old musket during their visit to the historic Battle of the Boyne site in Co Meath in 2007. Both men returned the following year to open a visitor centre. Pictur Then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern hands then Northern Ireland First Minister Ian Paisley a 300-year-old musket during their visit to the historic Battle of the Boyne site in Co Meath in 2007. Both men returned the following year to open a visitor centre. Picture by Niall Carson/PA Wire

No, the DUP only fields candidates in Northern Ireland elections, including general elections in which members of parliament (MPs) are elected to sit in Westminster as part of the UK government.

When the UK was in Europe the DUP was represented in the European Parliament. Ian Paisley was a member of the European Parliament (MEP) from 1979-2004 and in 1988 he heckled the Pope during the first papal visit to the Strasbourg political institution.

Paisley had warned that he would try to disrupt the Pope's speech, but still it took fellow MEPs by surprise and when the DUP leader held aloft posters accusing the Pope of being the antichrist, he was shouted down by other MEPs, who took the posters and threw papers at him in disgust.

He was ordered to leave the chamber by the then President, the UK's Lord Plumb.

Jim Allister became the party's second MEP (member of the European parliament) but he resigned from the party in 2007 and continued in his European role as an independent. Diane Dodds won the seat back for the DUP in 2009 and held it until 2020 when the UK officially left the European Union.

When was the DUP formed?

The DUP was formed in 1971 by Ian Paisley Snr, who was a controversial Protestant preacher who had been openly critical of the ruling Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) throughout the 1960s for its efforts to improve relations with the ruling government in the Republic of Ireland.

From its inception the DUP had opposed proposals for a ruling government body in Northern Ireland designed to share power with political parties from the Catholic/nationalist/republican (CNR) community.

The DUP also opposed the Sunningdale Agreement in 1973, which sought to create cross-border institutions to oversee a limited range of economic and cultural arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

In 1974 the DUP strongly supported a general strike by hardline unionist/loyalist workers throughout Northern Ireland. The Ulster Workers Strike received support from loyalist paramilitary organisations closing many main roads across the province.

Read more: Who were the UVF?

The strike resulted in the collapse of the power-sharing government and the introduction of British government direct rule.

Throughout the next 30 years the DUP remained the second largest unionist political party in Northern Ireland, behind the then dominant Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). Today, Sinn Fein is the largest political party in Northern Ireland.

Read more: Who are Sinn Fein?

Did the DUP support the Good Friday Agreement?

Peter Robinson embraces Arlene Foster after she was formally elected as leader of the DUP in 2015.  Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Peter Robinson embraces Arlene Foster after she was formally elected as leader of the DUP in 2015. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire Peter Robinson embraces Arlene Foster after she was formally elected as leader of the DUP in 2015. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire

In 1985 the DUP and UUP cooperated in opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement (AIA) between the British and Irish governments.

The two unionist parties were opposed to the increased political influence which the AIA gave to the Republic of Ireland’s government over the constitutional affairs of Northern Ireland.

In the early 1990s the DUP had taken part in inter-party talks chaired by the British and Irish governments to find a settlement between political parties in Northern Ireland.

However, the DUP left those talks in 1997 when Sinn Fein was admitted to the process.

The DUP refused to support the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998 claiming that it eroded British sovereignty in Northern Ireland.

Nevertheless, the party did contest Northern Ireland Assembly elections in June 1998, securing 20 seats (with 18.5% of the vote).

The party was entitled to appoint two ministers in the power-sharing Executive but refused to attend Executive meetings because of the presence of Sinn Fein ministers.

Read more: Who are the Alliance Party?

DUP in government with Sinn Fein at Stormont

The devolved institutions were rebooted following changes made in the St Andrews Agreement in 2006, leading to an unlikely partnership at Stormont between DUP leader Ian Paisley and Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness. Picture by Justin Kernoghan
The devolved institutions were rebooted following changes made in the St Andrews Agreement in 2006, leading to an unlikely partnership at Stormont between DUP leader Ian Paisley and Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness. Picture by Justin Kernoghan The devolved institutions were rebooted following changes made in the St Andrews Agreement in 2006, leading to an unlikely partnership at Stormont between DUP leader Ian Paisley and Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness. Picture by Justin Kernoghan

In 2007 the DUP caused a political earthquake when it agreed to enter into a power-sharing Executive with Sinn Fein.

Ian Paisley Snr subsequently became first minister of Northern Ireland with Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness taking the role of deputy first minister.

The veteran leader of the DUP retired in June 2008 and was replaced by his deputy Peter Robinson.

Peter Robinson led the party through a series of controversies until January 2016 when he was replaced by its first female leader Arlene Foster.

Arlene Foster held onto the party’s 38 seats following Assembly elections in May 2016.

However, in 2017 Ms Foster was at the centre of a political scandal following allegations of mismanagement relating a government scheme designed to promote renewable heat incentives (RHI) in Northern Ireland.

Sinn Fein withdrew from the power-sharing executive when Arlene Foster refused demands to step down as First Minister while a public inquiry was held into the financial scandal.

Read more: Stormont collapse: An explainer

An Assembly election was called following Sinn Fein’s decision to leave government.

The number of Assembly seats contested in that election had been reduced from 108 to 90. The DUP maintained its position as the largest party in the assembly with 28 seats, but Sinn Fein had closed the gap, securing 27 seats.

Theresa May, Arlene Foster and the Conservative Party coalition

DUP leader Arlene Foster at No 10 alongside Jeffrey Donaldson and Nigel Dodds. Picture by Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire
DUP leader Arlene Foster at No 10 alongside Jeffrey Donaldson and Nigel Dodds. Picture by Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire DUP leader Arlene Foster at No 10 alongside Jeffrey Donaldson and Nigel Dodds. Picture by Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

In June 2017 the DUP found itself as the effective kingmaker at Westminster when, with no ruling majority and a deeply divided party, then Conservative prime minister Theresa May was forced to secure Arlene Foster’s support to form a minority government.

In exchange for its support for May’s government the DUP secured the promise of £1 billion in extra funding for Northern Ireland over a two-year period.

However, the DUP’s political influence was seriously eroded when Ms May was ousted as prime minister and her successor, Boris Johnson, secured an 80-seat majority following a general election in 2019.

The Brexit deal, Northern Ireland Protocol and the Windsor Framework

The DUP later accused Boris Johnson and the United Kingdom of betrayal after his decision to agree controversial Brexit border control arrangements for Northern Ireland with the European Union.

Why was the Northern Ireland Protocol a source of tension?

The Northern Ireland Protocol formed a key part of Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal. It was jointly agreed by the then-prime minister of the United Kingdom and the EU in 2020 and was designed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland.

To keep the border free-flowing, London and Brussels essentially moved new regulatory and customs checks required by Brexit to the Irish Sea.

The move introduced red tape on trade between Britain and Northern Ireland, creating a headache for many businesses and enraging loyalists and unionists who claim the region’s place within the UK has been undermined.

The row over the new arrangements has left Northern Ireland without a functioning devolved government. In February 2022 Jeffrey Donaldson withdrew DUP First Minister Paul Givan from the Stormont Executive in a move designed to force the British government to address its concerns over the Brexit protocol.

The leader of the DUP has made it clear it will only go back into devolved government if significant changes are delivered on the protocol.

Read more: What is the Windsor Framework? An explainer