‘Most of the DUP have lost touch with the loyalist people’
The view from Shankill Road where there is an increasing sense of disconnect between people and party
Jim Martin: “There’s anger at the DUP, big anger.” Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
As so often in the North’s history, the writing is on the wall. In this instance, the declaration in question is a poster on Belfast’s Shankill Road warning: “Political leaders are not listening.”
Though the leaders pictured above it were representatives from Brussels, London, Washington and Dublin rather than Belfast, the indications in this working class, staunchly loyalist area on Thursday were that it might as easily have applied to Arlene Foster or the DUP as to Simon Coveney or Boris Johnson.
“Most of the DUP have lost touch with the loyalist people,” says Jim Martin. “The [Northern Ireland] protocol has been a big thing. There’s anger at the DUP, big anger. Boris took them on and sold them short, and they bought into it. And that’s the consequence of it – Arlene Foster’s lost her job.”
Ms Foster announced on Wednesday she would stand down as both leader of the DUP and the North’s First Minister after a significant majority of her party’s Assembly members and MPs signed a letter of no confidence in her leadership.
This in turn was reflective of the feeling among the unionist grassroots, where there is anger over the protocol and the Irish Sea border but also an increasing sense of disconnect between people and a party which they no longer feel represents their interests and concerns.
Certainly influencing the move against Foster was the prospect of an Assembly election next year – or perhaps sooner; the hard reality of the ballot box no doubt concentrating the minds of the more than 75 per cent of MLAs who signed the letter against her.
Whether this is all Foster’s fault is a matter for debate, though as party leader she must certainly shoulder some of the responsibility. On the Shankill Road, Jacqueline Waite feels Foster has been “made a scapegoat for everybody” and was “bullied into things” by others in the party.
“They don’t represent people. They don’t do anything for you when you need them. You have to go to the other side [nationalist politicians], they do more for the people here. The DUP wouldn’t help anybody but themselves.”
Opinions on Foster herself are mixed. “She should have been away years ago,” says Samuel Blair. “It’s just her attitude,” he explains, adding that he felt she was too controlled by others in the party and was “scared to open her mouth”.
“I’m sorry she’s gone, I liked her,” says David Holmes. “I thought she was doing well.” He acknowledges that maybe Foster “wasn’t hard-line enough” but feels that whoever succeeds her, most people locally will still vote for the DUP. “They’re the biggest unionist party.”
Not everyone agrees; aside from Martin, who would like to see Jeffrey Donaldson take over, nobody else The Irish Times speaks to on the Shankill voices a preference as a successor. “Those other clowns? Sure they do nothing,” is one man’s incredulous response.
“Sometimes it’s better the devil you know,” says one woman, who does not want to give her name. “She’s not the best leader they’ve had, but I don’t know what the alternative is going to be.”
She agrees the DUP has lost touch. She points to the lack of housing in the area, and says a lot of people have got “riled up” that there is a lot more new housing in nationalist areas.
There are also issues over mental health provision, and discontent over the Northern Ireland protocol and she says it will “take a lot” for the party to change. “They need to look towards the unionist community and say, ‘we’re serving you’ – and everyone else in Northern Ireland, of course.
“But I do believe we have been kicked to the kerb, and that has to change if we are all to live together in a peaceful way, as it should be.”
These sentiments are echoed in other loyalist areas across Northern Ireland. Valerie Quinn from Coleraine, Co Derry, is the chair of the Ulster Bands Forum and was a lifelong DUP voter. No longer. “I can’t bring myself to do that.”
As to who she vote for to instead, she is unsure; of the DUP, she feels “they have completely lost touch with the grassroots opinion. There’s no community engagement whatsoever . . . I think there’s far too much power held by those grey suits and those advisers who were never elected by us, the voters.
“They control the party too much, not the leader, and I know Arlene was the public face of the DUP and I think it’s really unfair actually, the approach that was taken . . . they’ve almost turned into the ‘Big House’ unionism they accused the UUP of being many years ago. It’s like there’s the DUP, and then there’s the rest of us, and there’s no connection there.”
Whoever the next DUP leader will be, it is clear they have much to do. “I don’t believe changing that leadership will have any effect,” says Quinn. “I think it needs change from the bottom up.”