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Newton Emerson: When will the DUP level with the public?

Party's convoluted positioning is about hiding from its mistakes, not appealing to its voters

On Monday, as UUP leader Doug Beattie’s Twitter troubles mounted, the DUP was adjusting its political position.

The timing was a coincidence: senior DUP figures put themselves before the cameras because of sluggish EU-UK protocol talks and a bad weekend opinion poll. However, they must have been glad Beattie took the focus off their manoeuvres. Detailed scrutiny would not have been kind.

Speaking to reporters in a quarry outside Belfast, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson issued a vague warning his party will walk out of Stormont if protocol talks are “strung out for weeks”. He may have been hoping for the headline “Donaldson digs in”. Instead, he was asked if the DUP would serve in the Northern Executive alongside a Sinn Féin first minister – something no unionist party has confirmed. Refusal to nominate a deputy first minister would cause devolution to collapse.

Donaldson inched towards confirmation, saying he will respect the rules and outcome of May’s election. He added a mysterious statement about all parties being able to enter opposition or opt out of the Executive “under certain circumstances”.

Donaldson would rather imply he might still have a procedural trick up his sleeve than just admit he could be 'deputy' to Sinn Féin

The rules only appear to permit this if the DUP becomes the second-largest unionist party – unlikely even before Beattie imploded. But Donaldson would rather imply he might still have a procedural trick up his sleeve than just admit he could be “deputy” to Sinn Féin.

A solution has been offered to this unionist fragility. The top two Executive posts, which have always been equal in all but name, could be retitled the “joint first ministers”. Sinn Féin already uses this terminology. The SDLP proposed it in the House of Lords last month and in the Commons this week, with the support of Alliance – Westminster is where the relevant law must be changed.

The DUP is opposed, however, with a spokesman complaining other parties want “political advantage”.

The truth is the DUP uses the symbolic contest to be the largest party to rally unionist voters behind it. If it had not changed Stormont’s rules for this purpose in the 2006 St Andrews Agreement, a unionist first minister would still be assured. But it cannot admit that either.

On Monday night, DUP First Minister Paul Givan gave a lengthy interview to UTV.

Givan might step into the Deputy First Minister’s role after May if Donaldson has trouble relocating from Westminster. The UK government was planning to change the law on dual mandates to ease his transition but changed its mind last week after opposition from all other Northern Ireland parties.

Givan was asked by UTV why he will not commit clearly to serving alongside a Sinn Féin first minister. He replied Sinn Féin would use the position to demand a Border poll and “under the Belfast Agreement, once you have a Border poll, you have to have one every seven years”.

This is incorrect. The agreement requires a minimum of seven years between polls, so if unionism won decisively the next vote could be decades away. It suits both Sinn Féin and the DUP to hold out the false prospect of a Border poll, either as an imminent promise or an endless threat.

Givan added unionists should “coalesce” behind the DUP to “focus on health and education”.

So what are its policies? Sinn Féin has drafted a budget that diverts funds from all other departments into health. Only the DUP has rejected it. Alliance is advancing a Bill on integrated education. Again, only the DUP has rejected it.

All these layers of empty posturing sit on top of the DUP’s even more complicated protocol positioning.

Threats to quit Stormont are no longer plausible this close to an election, so the DUP has begun threatening not to return afterwards. A rule change due under the New Decade, New Approach deal, ironically to make devolution more stable, will extend the period to form an executive after an election from two weeks to six months. That would let the DUP string everyone else out until November.

The party is not positioning itself to appeal to the electorate

Donaldson is undoubtedly a skilled politician. He has brought former leader Peter Robinson, known for his “clever devices”, back as an adviser. But the elaborate puzzle the DUP has devised is too clever by half. Few people follow politics closely enough to appreciate it, yet everyone can still see it is a self-serving mess. The party is not positioning itself to appeal to the electorate, but merely to find a convoluted space where it can hide from the frustration of unionist voters, on the protocol in particular, without admitting fault or that pain is unavoidable.

Any leader must see the case for sweeping all this aside and levelling with the public.

If that is unrealistic before an election it should happen soon afterwards.

Beattie apologised, which may not restore his fortunes, or deserve to, or be an exact parallel with the DUP’s predicament. But it was still clearly preferable to a desperate, protracted campaign to save face.