On the Twelfth Day of July, is the DUP bleeding?
“The price for power-sharing.” With such words was the news greeted last year that six councillors in Ballymena, a DUP stronghold, were defecting to the Traditional Unionist Voice. Since then, defections have continued. Sixty-six thousand votes in the European elections later, TUV have lost their only MEP – Jim Allister, who was elected under a DUP banner – but they have not been alone in their losses. Apart from defections to TUV – which amounts to something like 13 councillors, the DUP have also recently lost one in Dungannon to the UUP and one in Ballymena to the Conservatives.
If I was asked for some poetic reasoning behind these defections, I can do no better than to turn to Cllr. Robin Sterling, who jumped ship from DUP to TUV soon after Ian Paisley was removed as Moderator by his own creation, the Free Presbyterian Church: “I think a bigger factor is that the DUP are attempting to modernise and to free themselves from Paisley’s past – his extravaganza of throwing bibles, the street politics and the tasteless attacks on the Roman Catholic church.” In a nutshell this encapsulates the appeal Paisley exerted on Unionist grassroots.
Unionism is a contradiction, seeking to politically mobilise the Protestant working class even whilst it demands that this working class accept a leadership that doesn’t act in working class interests. As the DUP ‘modernises’ itself, in response to the demands of the Northern Irish political establishment and of power-sharing with Sinn Fein, it loses the ability to reconcile these elements through charismatic figures such as Ian Paisley. Indeed Ian Paisley built up his credibility by attacking Unionist politicians and dispensers of patronage who danced the very masquerade of ‘community dialogue’ and power sharing that has characterised Northern Irish politics since Sunningdale.
Continuing this contradiction will either destroy power-sharing, or destroy the DUP, as a new charismatic leader emerges to continue the myth so necessary to sustaining the position of the Loyal Orange Lodges, Unionism and a vitriolic Protestantism in the eyes of half the Northern Irish working class. The Republican movement is subject to this pressure as well, but it does not share many of the traditions of the Unionist movement – there is no clear precedent for knifing one’s comrades, and no touchstone over which to do so, such as the forced collapse of the Sunningdale executive forms for those seeking to overturn the Good Friday Agreement and current power-sharing.
Today is the Twelfth of July, a day significant for the Unionist population of Northern Ireland. Last year, at Orange marches scheduled around the Twelfth fortnight, some DUP politicians were given a cold reception by the grassroots. David Simpson (an MP) was heckled from the sidelines, and refused to return the way he had come, after marching with the Orange Order through Scarva. Daryl Hewitt was also heckled. It will be interesting to see how the senior figures of Unionism, of the DUP stripe, are received this year. Peter Robinson, First Minister and DUP leader, has been meeting with the reviled Republican, Brendan MacCionnaith.
MacCionnaith heads the residents association of Garvaghy in Portadown. This is a vital area as the Orange Order holds a big march (and often a subsequent protest when they are refused their march by the Parades Commission) up the Garvaghy Road. In 1995 and 1996, this resulted in widespread riots and the seizure of roads and public transport on the part of both Republicans and Unionists. It is a continuing bone of contention, over which the UUP was seen to be more amenable to compromise while the DUP maintained their hard line. As the issue seems to be less pressing than in 1996, the DUP have escaped with some fudging.
Traditional Unionist Voice are still hot on the issue. In his (pisspoor) policy document, which relies heavily on the book of a Daily Mail columnist, Jim Allister, leader of TUV and now former MEP, declares, “The fundamental problem lies not with the Loyal Orders but with Republicans”. Compare this to MacCionnaith’s assessment of Peter Robinson, who ostensibly toes the same line as Allister: “He accepted that there was widespread opposition to the march through the nationalist community in Portadown. He is trying to see the views on both sides of this.” All the potential fault lines are there; a little stress and the Unionist vote is off to the races.
A slow haemorrhaging of councillors or unionist sympathy from the DUP could be just the beginning of a realignment.