Opinion

How has the DUP led unionism into decline, while Sinn Féin has guided nationalism into sectarian ascendancy? – Patrick Murphy

Patrick Murphy

Patrick Murphy

Patrick Murphy is an Irish News columnist and former director of Belfast Institute for Further and Higher Education.

The DUP and Sinn Féin became the leading parties in unionism and nationalism in the 2003 Assembly election, allowing Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness to lead a power-sharing executive four years later
The DUP and Sinn Féin became the leading parties in unionism and nationalism in the 2003 Assembly election, allowing Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness to lead a power-sharing executive four years later

In his famous 1968 television address, Captain Terence O’Neill said “Ulster stands at the crossroads”. Although we no longer have a unionist prime minister, a similar speech from Jeffrey Donaldson tomorrow would probably state that it is unionism which is now at the crossroads.

Still image of Captain Terence O'Neill's television broadcast in December 1968
Under pressure from civil rights campaigners as well as from within unionism, Captain Terence O'Neill took to the airwaves in December 1968 to warn that "Ulster stands at the crossroads"

Jeffrey’s crossroads choice is between returning to Stormont with a weakened DUP, or staying out and leaving the north’s governance in chaos. So how has the DUP led unionism into decline, while SF has guided nationalism into sectarian ascendancy?

Both parties are products of the Troubles. Triggered by the burning of Bombay Street, SF was founded in January 1970, as a breakaway from the republican movement’s left-wing policies. The DUP was formed in September 1971, as an alternative to the Ulster Unionists’ failure to quell the violence.

Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, pictured in the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin
Interview with Irish republicans Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, pictured in the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin, was leader of Sinn Féin after its split in 1970 until 1983 (Julien Behal/PA)

Both parties’ fundamentalism placed them on the same starting line, but SF has run a better race. Their victory has three main explanations: principles, publicity and political ability.

SF’s founding principles included abstention from Stormont and Leinster House; non-recognition of all courts; Irish independence from Britain and the EU; and support for violence to achieve an Irish republic.



All these principles have now been abandoned. Interestingly, the more SF deserted what they said they stood for, the more popular they became. They achieved this through dynamic public relations, based on a wonderful flexibility with the truth and a reliance on the public’s short-term memory.

For example, they opposed the civil rights campaign, but then claimed that the IRA’s 30-year war was for equality. Without a decision by party members, or even a public announcement, they went from being anti-EU to pro-EU overnight.

Former DUP leader Ian Paisley in the 1980s
Former DUP leader Ian Paisley pictured n the 1980s

The DUP largely stuck to its founding principles, which included fundamentalist Christianity, loyalty to the monarchy and conditional union with Britain. Unlike SF, it still opposes the EU. Retaining that principle has burdened it with a negative image, while abandoning the same principle has boosted SF’s reputation.

The difference between the parties is best illustrated by their attitudes to the Good Friday Agreement, which was a victory for unionism because nationalists agreed to partition. SF lost and did not admit it. The DUP won and did not know it.

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams called for similar strategic thinking from unionists to that which led to the Good Friday Agreement
Former Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams

SF called it a victory, although it was the IRA’s biggest military defeat since the civil war, as “Brits Out” became “Brits In”. Instead of celebrating victory and promoting power-sharing, the DUP adopted ridiculous positions on irrelevancies from flags to parades.

They displayed remarkable political innocence, or maybe arrogance. They believed Boris Johnson when he said he would stand by them and, unlike SF, they have not cultivated international friends (and wealthy donors) in high places. Instead the party seeks refuge with the Tory right in GB News, the lunatic fringe of broadcasting. The DUP’s problems today stem from 25 years of failing to appreciate a changing world.

Despite the weight of evidence against Boris Johnson, DUP MPs, including Ian Paisley, abstained in the partygate vote. Picture by Justin Kernoghan
The DUP believed Boris Johnson when he said he would stand by them

The party has never understood public relations. Even today it fails to expose the trading difficulties which the Windsor Framework will soon create here, highlighting archaic constitutional law instead.

Perhaps the most interesting contrast in the two parties’ fortunes lies in religion. SF’s policy differs from the Catholic Church’s teachings on issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion, but its largely Catholic electoral support continues to rise. It is difficult to quantify, but SF appears to be as popular as the Church, because as many northern Catholics vote for SF as attend Sunday Mass regularly.

The difference between the DUP and Sinn Féin is best illustrated by their attitudes to the Good Friday Agreement. SF lost and did not admit it. The DUP won and did not know it

The DUP’s policies on both issues closely match the Catholic Church’s teachings, but few Catholics vote DUP. Did the Church’s decline help SF’s rise, while DUP policy has been restrained by the religious beliefs of many of its members?

The two parties’ one common trait is that both deny responsibility for the collapse of our public services. That was someone else’s fault.

So the moral of the story is that in politics here, populism beats principle and image runs rings around reality. Mind you, it is a lesson which also probably applies to life in general.