Saturday, 23 August 2014

From Protest to Power - a snapshot of the Democratic Unionist Party

The Democratic Unionist Party is firmly established as Northern Ireland’s biggest political party and its dominance of Ulster unionism is no longer disputed.  However there are surprisingly few books which make a serious attempt to explain the DUP’s success or describe the political beliefs which motivate its members.  From Protest to Power sets out to fill that gap.

Jonathan Tonge et al’s book is not a party history, aimed at the casual reader.  This is an academic work, with a price-tag to match.  If you want a more lurid account of the DUP, from its origins in Ian Paisley’s protest politics, through to involvement with a ‘third force’ and on to the downfall of its founder and leader for 37 years, you’re probably best to look elsewhere.

Its publisher, Oxford University Press, describes From Protest to Power as the ‘first ever survey of the Democratic Unionist Party’.  The backbone of the book is extensive research into the attitudes, backgrounds and beliefs of 1,600 members and over 100 interviews with political representatives, activists and advisers from the party.  It is a portrait of the DUP, as it is today, as well as an analysis of how the profile of its membership and its politics are changing.

The authors’ findings are sometimes predictable and sometimes surprising. 

Their research confirms that the influence of the Free Presbyterian church within the DUP’s senior ranks is disproportionate, considering the tiny number of congregants in Northern Ireland.  ‘Free Ps’ still make up 30% of all members and over half the current set of MPs.   So the commonplace criticism that the party’s policy is guided by fringe evangelical Protestant theology is bolstered by quantifiable evidence. 

The DUP is considered deeply socially conservative, but the authors find that ‘religiosity’ is a more accurate guide then membership of a particular Protestant denomination, to individual members’ attitudes on social issues (non-Protestant members are practically non-existent).  They also suggest that the influence of Free Presbyterianism is beginning to wane, with the new wave of recruits who have joined the party since the Good Friday Agreement less likely to attend the church.

Many of the changes described in the book are inevitable consequences of the DUP becoming unionism’s largest party.  For instance, the Orange Order, which until 2005 was linked officially to the UUP, now has a strong presence in its political rival.  Over half of the DUP’s elected representatives belong to the Order, which may help to explain why issues around parading still command such overwhelming importance in Northern Ireland’s politics.

One of the most illuminating sections of the book deals with attitudes to identity within the party.  A lot of ink has been spilled and political hope invested in the growth of a feeling of ‘Northern Irishness’, particularly among young people, suggested by polls, surveys and the last census.  This trend is not reflected among members of Northern Ireland’s largest party.  In fact the authors found a great deal of hostility toward the Northern Irish identity, as well as an outright rejection of any trace of Irishness.

Many members seemed to view Northern Irishness as a threat to ‘Britishness’, even suggesting that the Northern Irish identity has been promoted deliberately by the Westminster and Dublin governments in order to undermine the British identity in Northern Ireland.  Although it was this British identity alone that most of the interviewees felt most keenly, many were strikingly inarticulate when they were asked to explain what this meant.

Some of the more impressive elected representatives, specifically those who had joined the party via the UUP, were able to cobble together a definition, based on allegiance to political institutions and cultural affiliations to the rest of the UK.  However the book also described a pronounced hostility to pan-UK politics, with DUP members suspicious of the Westminster government and sceptical about national parties’ involvement in Northern Ireland.

Although political analysis is not the core of From Protest to Power, the authors do highlight some aspects of the struggle within unionism, which culminated in Democratic Unionists becoming the dominant force.  The party’s pragmatism is highlighted and it is credited with negotiating prowess.  In particular, the book ascribes acts of decommissioning to the DUP’s uncompromising negotiating position and it also points to Sinn Féin’s decision to support the police, although it is acknowledged that both of these developments would probably have happened anyway.

The authors believe that the St Andrews’ Agreement, negotiated by the DUP, made the political institutions in Northern Ireland more accountable than had been ensured by the original Belfast Agreement.  They also point out that the fundamentals of the ‘Good Friday’ accord remained intact and Alex Kane’s dismissive verdict of St Andrews as ‘the Good Friday Agreement in a kilt’ is quoted with approval. 

Though From Protest to Power depicts a party which is changing, the change it portrays is glacially slow.  The DUP has a hard-edged, pragmatic leadership, whose priority is to maintain its dominance, but roots in extreme, religious conservatism still influence every aspect of Democratic Unionism. 

This is a party which has had to compromise to gain power and has been shaped by that transition.  It is bigger, looser, less dogmatic, but it is still slow to reflect changing attitudes in Northern Ireland society and it is resistant to those changes.

The book is a useful snapshot of the DUP and its analysis provides some context for the party’s success.  However it should be viewed as a significant piece of research and not, by any means, as a narrative history of Paisleyism or Democratic Unionism. 

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