Tonge, Braniff, Hennessey, McAuley & Whiting

The Democratic Unionist Party: From Protest to Power

(Tonge, Braniff, Hennessey, McAuley and Whiting)

Oxford University Press, 2014, 248pp


Despite the voluminous academic literature on Northern Ireland there is little written about the organisation which has become its most popular political force—the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). For more than forty years following the party’s formation in 1971, it was led by a fundamentalist Protestant preacher, the Reverend Ian Paisley, who formed the main focus of attention, rather than the party itself. In 2006, Paisley amazed many by concluding the St Andrews Agreement with the historic republican enemy, agreeing to share power with Sinn Fein at the head of Northern Ireland’s government. The DUP moved from being a party of protest to one of power, its position consolidated under Paisley’s successor, Peter Robinson.

How much has the DUP changed, as a party of power? Does it contain an unyieldingly religious and conservative membership, still reluctant to share power with Sinn Fein? To what extent is that membership changing?  What are the modern concerns of DUP members? How do they view other political parties? This book aims to answer all those questions. Drawing upon the first-ever membership survey of the DUP, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, the volume offers a unique quantitative study of the demographic basis and attitudes of the DUP’s membership, accompanied by the most extensive range of interviews (over 100) and focus group discussions with party members yet undertaken.

The book explains how a fundamentalist ethno-religious party seemingly destined to oppose political deals (such as the 1974 Sunningdale and 1998 Good Friday agreements) finally offered compromise and sold a deal to a disbelieving electorate, surely one of the most remarkable political pacts accompanying any peace process? It analyses how a faith-derived party can appeal to those of strong Protestant faith and none. It addresses a range of questions: Who belongs to the DUP? Why did they join? What are their beliefs? How strong are the various Protestant denominations? Have any Roman Catholics joined? How extensive is Orange membership within the DUP? Beyond the demography, the book assesses the political questions which concern the membership. Is power-sharing seen as necessary? Would they ever consider voting across the sectarian divide? What are their views on Roman Catholics? How would they approach the integration of Northern Irish society and tackle key issues of division? The volume explores the relationships between leaders and led. Is it essentially ‘top down’, or is it indeed a ‘Democratic’ Unionist Party, in which members are satisfied with internal party communications, tested most strongly at the time of the 2006 St Andrews Agreement?

In charting the rise of the DUP, the book highlights how the rival Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) was targeted: as ineffectual in its tactics and commitment to the defence of unionism and distant from the ‘ordinary’ unionist people, whom the DUP claimed to represent. Underpinning this was the third key strand of DUP thinking, that the UK government’s intentions were to eventually abandon Northern Ireland. Yet the St Andrews Agreement, although important in pushing Sinn Fein into fully constitutional politics via support for the police, changed very little of the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. The 2006 deal stretched the party’s base and was a hard sell, but the influx of robust but talented defectors from the UUP, unwilling to be consigned to powerlessness for another generation, helped secure the revival of power-sharing. The DUP operated on the notion of ‘negotiation through strength’.

 Devolution offers greater scope for the restatement of regional Ulster Loyalism, which the DUP has often appeared to represent. However, the book argues that the party may have moved closer to offering a formation of Britishness more closely aligned to that found elsewhere in the UK than had previously been the case. Members prefer a British to Northern Irish or Ulster identifications, but their Britishness remains more Protestant and socially conservative than that found elsewhere in the UK. This chapter assesses the rival pulls of national Britishness versus regional Northern Irishness at both leadership and grassroots levels of the party. The chapter also highlights the exclusiveness of identity, in terms of the outright rejection by DUP members of any sense of Irishness.

The book demonstrates how the DUP remains a highly religious party. Free Presbyterians are the largest single denominational category, but their rate of entrance to the DUP is in marked decline. The religiously conservative attitudes of members are analysed, the data showing strong opposition to homosexuality and abortion. Most DUP members believe that ‘Faith and Church’ should play a substantial role in the party. Despite its appeal to Catholic unionists to support the party, the DUP leadership continues to offer ‘unionism as politicised Protestantism’. The party has had to offer a defence of national and regional religious and cultural identities. In so doing, the DUP has had to see off a challenge from harder-line unionists arguing that the party’s compromises have betrayed unionists. Not everyone was impressed by the sharing of power with republicans, including a significant number of members who considered defection.

Catholics are not the only group under-represented in the DUP. The gender deficit is also stark. Whilst being described as the ‘backbone of the party’ and actively participating at membership level, few women in the DUP enter electoral politics. The book explores the supply and demand of female candidates, the opportunities for female participation, and the selection process within the party.

The book concludes by assessing future directions for the DUP, as the party continues to replace its old Free Presbyterian trappings with broader (Protestant) appeal. Can the party expand beyond its current position as effectively a ‘catch-all’ party within a particular ethnic bloc, and attract electoral support from beyond the Protestant community? What roles will the party play in removing the sectarianism which has bedevilled Northern Ireland? And finally, what the will the DUP’s membership look like in a generation’s time? Will it much more broadly reflect the wider population in Northern Ireland? Can it maintain the cohesion and unity which characterized the party of opposition for so long, before it acquired the burdens of government?