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Newton Emerson: DUP could prove its most destructive having cornered itself

Foster departing deeply conflicted party as she announces decision to step down

Last month, a remarkable set of minutes was leaked to the Belfast News Letter from the DUP’s South Antrim constituency association.

It revealed a party in despair, with elected representatives at all levels calling for “drastic change”.

Perhaps unexpectedly, the changes being sought in this DUP heartland area were for party headquarters to rein in outspoken Brexiteers such as MP Sammy Wilson and Stormont minister Edwin Poots, and for leader Arlene Foster to get on with the Irish language legislation promised in last year's deal to restore devolution.

“Arlene needs to sell it to the country,” one Assembly member said.

Yet the collapse of Foster's leadership, triggered this week by letters from half the DUP's constituency associations, relates to her failing to vote against a ban on gay conversion therapy and resuming meetings with the Irish Government, despite pledging to boycott them over the Northern Ireland protocol.

The contrast between the leak and the letters reveals a profoundly conflicted party.

There is no simple split between hardliners and pragmatists or conservatives and relative liberals. The DUP is overwhelmingly conservative and will now almost certainly lurch to the right. But everyone in it is painfully aware this will paint them further into a corner. Most realise the pragmatic choice is to take the hit for setbacks and ‘sell’ them, as Foster tried to do with the protocol as recently as January. They just cannot bring themselves to do it.

Paisleyite roots

The response from some is to hack the party down to its Paisleyite roots. Four letters are in circulation calling for Foster to go. The letter from DUP councillors demands a return to "Christian values" and "Ulster conservatism" and also calls for the heads of deputy leader and chief Brexiteer Nigel Dodds, plus chief executive Timothy Johnson and director of communications John Robinson.

Sacking the latter two would be a rejection not just of Foster's tenure but that of her predecessor, Peter Robinson, who hired both men to run his all-powerful headquarters machine.

The lack of any obvious successor to Foster has kept her in office for years. By initiating the DUP’s first ever open leadership contest, a majority of its elected representatives have desperately decided to let the chips fall where they may.

Less fatalistic sources are briefing about a joint ticket: possibly MP Jeffrey Donaldson as leader, with Poots as deputy leader and first minister.

This would cover the DUP’s multiple splits without Donaldson having to relocate to Stormont, causing a Westminster byelection in which Alliance could make significant gains.

But would two power centres heal internal divides or exacerbate them?

The DUP is a tiny, tightly-managed organisation, with only a few hundred active members. Only its eight MPs and 28 Assembly members get to vote in leadership ballots. To have such wide-ranging differences break out publicly from within these claustrophobic confines reveals utter panic and meltdown.

The likeliest outcome is failure – Northern Ireland's largest party will be unable to hold on to its coalition of voters, which a poll in February showed to be falling away in two opposite directions, to Alliance and the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice.

In a previous era, the UUP would have been expected to benefit. Intriguingly, it proposed the ban on gay conversion therapy. Although the UUP has put some socially liberal water between itself and the DUP it shares the same hopeless policy on Brexit – abolition of the protocol – and in general appears aimless and poorly led.

So the most serious question raised by Foster’s departure is not who will replace her but whether Northern Ireland’s political structures can cope with a fundamental realignment of the party system.

Alliance could take second place, making Stormont’s powersharing arrangements redundant. Sinn Féin could take first place and erroneously claim a mandate for a Border poll.

Assembly election

The next scheduled Assembly election is in 12 months. Speculation has begun on this coming forward, as it feels improbable a fragile Executive can survive the DUP’s latest drama.

However, no new DUP leader could relish a trip to the polls, especially as they would have to walk out of Stormont to get there. The lesson of recent elections is this would drive more voters to Alliance – “bringing down the Assembly is not an option” was a quote in the leaked minutes.

Sinn Féin is also facing losses, so it is motivated to put up with an obstructive new DUP team.

When the electorate finally gets its say, unionist people should have nothing to fear – in theory. As the DUP has been a disaster for the union, the union should benefit from an electoral disaster for the DUP.

In practice, democratic verdicts may not be accepted by the Democratic Unionist Party. It spent decades on the sidelines, agitating against every compromise until it took top spot on its own terms.

The DUP could prove at its most destructive when cornered – all the more so for having cornered itself.

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