Friday, 16 June 2017

Demonising the DUP risks demonising NI voters

There are many less than admirable aspects to Northern Ireland’s largest political party - the DUP - and I’ve written about them extensively.  The Democratic Unionists have a history of sectarian intolerance and rabble-rousing populism.  

Over the years, they’ve changed dramatically, attracting support from mainstream unionists and establishing a wider membership profile, but they’ve never quite ditched their hardline, fundamentalist Protestant image.  

The DUP’s social attitudes are often strikingly traditional, its ideas about Britishness can seem foreign to people in the rest of the UK and it is sometimes criticised justifiably for an ambivalent, contradictory attitude to loyalist paramilitary groups..  

Therefore there are plenty of legitimate reasons to criticise the Tories’ decision to seek Democratic Unionist support to form a government, without resorting to the deluge of nonsense that some journalists, commentators and Tweeters directed at the party when news of a possible ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement emerged.  

The DUP is not a ‘white nationalist’ party’, nor is it  equivalent to the KKK, though its representatives have occasionally made rather ignorant remarks about other nationalities and races.  

It is not a ‘theocratic’ party - its leadership spans various christian denominations and non church-goers - though its membership does contain a high proportion of evangelical protestants.  

The Democratic Unionists certainly cannot be characterised as ‘terrorist sympathisers’, having never endorsed political violence, though they work in loyalist communities where the influence of paramilitaries is strong and a tangle of social links makes dealing with ‘ex-combatants’ difficult to avoid.

Undoubtedly, the DUP’s origins are deeply unpleasant.  Its founder, Ian Paisley, made no effort to separate his early political involvement from viscerally sectarian religious beliefs.  In ‘From Demagogue to Democrat?’, Ed Moloney describes attacks on Catholic property that followed vicious, provocative speeches on the Shankill Road.              

The party was accused of flirting with loyalist paramilitaries, for instance during the Ulster Workers’ Strike.  Later, after the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Paisley wore a beret for the gun-running ‘Ulster Resistance’ movement and spoke about the need for a ‘Third Force’ militia to defend Northern Ireland against republicans.        

Ironically, the former First Minister is now usually depicted as a peace-maker, who led his party into power-sharing with Republicans and his transformation into one half of the ‘Chuckle Brothers’ is a topic for cinema.  Yet the DUP’s current leader, Arlene Foster, a woman who worships at the moderate, Anglican Church of Ireland, and whose political biography is unblemished by extremism, is demonised as a danger to British democracy.   

The DUP still has its quotient of cranks and backwoodsmen, but clearly it has changed in a way that the post-election commentary has not generally recognised.  After the Good Friday Agreement, the party benefited from an influx of disillusioned Ulster Unionists, many of whom are now in senior leadership positions, who were not connected to Ian Paisley’s hard-line Free Presbyterian church.

The DUP is socially conservative, to say the least, but its membership is not monolithic and attitudes are changing.  UUP councillor, Jeffrey Dudgeon, who has every right to call himself Northern Ireland’s “best known gay rights campaigner”, recently refuted the idea that Democratic Unionists are uniquely hostile to homosexuality.  He acknowledges that many “draw the line” at equal marriage, but doesn’t agree that is a reason to vilify them.   

The DUP has its disreputable side, which includes allegations of cronyism and corruption, but it also has a substantial mandate in Northern Ireland (almost 300,000 voters in a population of 1.8million).  Some of the hyperbolic, inaccurate criticism it received shows ill-disguised contempt for Northern Irish voters, and deep incomprehension of a sizeable, complicated political movement that cannot be reduced merely to cliches about evangelical Protestantism and hard-line loyalism.  

The DUP attracts support from unionists for a range of reasons, including the perception that it is best equipped to check the demands of Sinn Fein, which is still led by some of the former terrorists who waged a campaign of murder against their neighbours.  Despite their uncompromising reputation, Democratic Unionists have repeatedly shown that they can be hard-headed, pragmatic negotiators, both in their dealings with the British government and Irish republicans.

Even long-standing opponents of the party are uncomfortable with some of the nonsense currently being written by people who should no better.  From hysteria at the principle of the DUP gaining influence in the next administration, it is only a short hop to argue that the uncivilised, backward voters of Northern Ireland should be denied a say in who forms their government.  That would be to deprive them of the most basic rights guaranteed by any functioning democracy.              

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