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Newton Emerson: Things look bad for the DUP – but not too bad

Lack of options and deep dislike of Sinn Féin will probably keep party together

It is unfortunate that the last item on the DUP’s agenda is the split. If the party is going to get a trouncing at the polls next Thursday, as expected, the best outcome for unionism – and arguably for Northern Ireland – would be the DUP fragmenting sufficiently to realign the political system. The worst outcome, certainly for unionism, would be the DUP staggering on, demanding to remain the largest unionist party while obstructing the growth or emergence of others.

The DUP is an extraordinarily strange vehicle for the hopes and dreams of Northern Ireland's British population. It is commonplace to observe the party is far more religious and less socially liberal than its voters, with the disconnection accelerating in recent years. Broad ideas of liberal and conservative are vaguely associated with strength of feeling on the union. In this simple model, a DUP split might see hardliners join the Traditional Unionist Voice and pragmatists join the Ulster Unionist Party.

Last year, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson reportedly discussed joining the UUP with like-minded colleagues after he was beaten to the DUP leadership by Edwin Poots.

The DUP has no declared secularists but it does have classical liberals, who defended the rights of the individual

This week, all seven of the DUP’s South Down constituency officers resigned and pledged to vote for the TUV, due to what they consider the imposition of an assembly candidate. That is part of the continuing fallout from the Poots-Donaldson tussle, a faultline primed to rupture again after the election.


But there is far more complexity and exotic division inside the DUP.

Last September, the party allowed its assembly members an unprecedented free vote over a UUP Bill on opt-out organ donation. Religious concerns were thought to be an issue and DUP discipline was still fragile after Donaldson had ousted Poots while leaving some of his ministers in place.

Every other party, from the TUV to People Before Profit, backed the Bill unanimously. The DUP's assembly members split four ways: 10 voted for; five against; four abstained, which requires voting for and against; and six physically absented themselves. Of those who spoke in the debate, none mentioned religion. The DUP has no declared secularists but it does have classical liberals, who defended the rights of the individual. There was no rancour: the party seemed relieved to be having a grown-up debate with itself in public. The unexpected variety cut across factions. Paul Frew, one of Poots's ministers, describes himself as a libertarian.

If the DUP began breaking up along these overlapping lines, it could split in surprising ways. Wings cannot be neatly transplanted to other parties, especially the UUP, another multi-dimensional mess. For a proper realignment of unionism, it might need to break up as well. How this would play with the electorate and its constitutional priorities is equally complicated. While unionists are a little more liberal than nationalists, according to most opinion surveys, loyalists are more socially liberal than either. DUP voters have been jumping straight to Alliance; one possible realignment of unionism would involve unionist parties becoming detached from the wider pro-union population.

With neither the UUP nor the TUV on course for an electoral breakthrough, the DUP is not set to suffer an imminently crushing defeat

But radical change would be the point; let a hundred flowers blossom, to quote Chairman Mao.

How likely is it? Although the DUP is not going to disappear, last year's leadership disaster showed its potential to fall apart. It also revealed a yearning to shrink down to an ideological comfort zone after the trauma of Brexit. The putsch against Arlene Foster, Poots's predecessor, began with a letter from councillors demanding a return to "Christian values" and "Ulster conservativism".

On the other hand, with neither the UUP nor the TUV on course for an electoral breakthrough, the DUP is not set to suffer an imminently crushing defeat.

I have been told the only things now holding the party together are lack of options and dislike of Sinn Féin. Those are powerful enough forces: lack of options and dislike of the DUP has kept the UUP going for 20 years.

The loss of a few big names or a poor performance in key constituencies could trigger another heave against the leadership, or upset the balance of factions. The DUP is a tiny organisation, with perhaps as few as 200 active members plus 160 elected representatives, mostly councillors. Only its 34 MLAs and MPs can vote in leadership contests. Smallness has its advantages, however. Once troublemakers are dealt with or depart, control can be swiftly reasserted.

So the working assumption must be that Donaldson clings on and the DUP staggers on, waiting for something to turn up on the protocol or powersharing’s rules to be tweaked, so it can slink back into Stormont and wait for its vote to creep back up again.

It is remarkable that a party of non-conforming Presbyterians is not more vulnerable to schisms – an observation meant in no way as a jibe. Schisms are a healthy tradition, bringing catharsis, renewal and growth. Describing this as evolution would be a jibe, and one I will allow myself under the circumstances.