The difference between the DUP of the late 1990s/early 2000s and today is remarkable. From being a party of protest, it has been one of power over the last decade. Having threatened to ‘smash Sinn Fein’, it now shares power with that party. Having overtaken its internal bloc rival, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) by 2003, the DUP proceeded to accept all it had repudiated in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement when signing the St Andrews Agreement in 2006, albeit also obliging Sinn Fein to support the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
Unprecedented electoral success amid Unionist anxieties over the Good Friday Agreement offered Paisley the chance to become First Minister and end his career as a ‘statesman’ rather than as a bombastic, marginalised oppositional figure. Paisley’s new-found willingness to find politically acceptable all that had been previously ‘morally unjust’ was clearly a derivative of the party’s newly dominant status. Even in a top-down organisation, the DUP leader had to carry his party and it is in this respect that the new influx was crucial. Almost one-quarter of DUP members once belonged to the UUP. Most defected during the early 2000s, joining the DUP in opposition to particular aspects of the Agreement and its aftermath – such as the release of ‘terrorist’ prisoners and changes to policing and were seen as ostensibly hardline. This influx of new members caused many policy changes.
Crucially, many of the ex-UUP members – and others who have joined the DUP since the early 2000s – did not reject power-sharing with Irish nationalists per se. Rather, they wanted devolution; accepted the principles of shared cabinet positions; supported the need for weighted cross-community support and even endorsed all-island economic bodies. Provided Sinn Fein moved their associates in the IRA to call off its armed campaign and decommission weapons, and offered support for the police, all of which happened by early 2007, newer members were ready to move to sharing power with Sinn Fein. Softer stances on all these positions are not merely attributable to the possibilities of youth. What matters attitudinally in the DUP is when a member joined – not how old they are.
The DUP has changed its policies regarding policing. Initially they were part of the ‘Save the RUC’ campaign, but since the Hillsborough Agreement of 2010 they have supported the rebranding of the police as the PSNI and they supported the 50/50 recruitment policy between protestant and Catholics. This dramatic change of policy angered some of their more hardline supporters.
The DUP has changed its policies with regards to co-operating with the Republic of Ireland. In the past they refused to sit on the North South Ministerial Council, but now they do and have even engaged with the Gaelic Athletic Association as well as making an historic address at the party conference of Fine Gael.
Furthermore, the DUP has changed its policies with regards to religion. It used to comprise mainly of protestant fundamentalists, however, this influence was reduced somewhat under the Robinson leadership in an attempt to reach out to non-Protestants, particularly socially conservative Catholics. Many of its members are non-Free Presbyterian and far less desirous of ‘faith and church’ dominating the DUP in the way it once did. The percentage of post-1998 joiners citing ‘Suited my Protestant values’ as their primary reason for joining the DUP is only six per cent compared to one-third of pre-1998 joiners. Newer joiners are much less likely to believe that ‘homosexuality is wrong’ whereas a large majority of pre-1998 joiners are of this view. Whether this shift will herald a softening of attitudes on same-sex marriage (or abortion) remains to be seen, as DUP Assembly members appear resolutely against change at present. Arlene Foster as leader is proof that the DUP has changed in many ways and that it is not as patriarchal as it used to be. She is also from the Church of Ireland, much more moderate than the FPC.
Change also appears possible on cultural expressions of Protestantism. Routes of some Orange Order parades have been a source of sectarian controversy and associated violence. Newer DUP members are much less assertive of unfettered marching rights and much more prepared than older members to accept the compromise that the Orange Order should only march near interfaces with the agreement of local nationalist residents. This softening of approach is already feeding into DUP thinking on how to replace the current regulatory body, the Parades Commission.
On the other hand, many aspects of the DUP’s beliefs have remained the same since they were founded. They remain committed to the union with Britain and continue to oppose and criticise Sinn Fein. An example, they have never changed their policy on Irish language and this has led to much tension with Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein believe that they secured an Irish Language act in the St Andrew’s Agreement of 2006 but the DUP oppose such an act. However, this has yet to materialise because even if it was introduced it would never generate the cross-community support needed to pass it. Irish language has always been a source of contention between the DUP and Sinn Fein, but since 2007 it has become more problematic.
Gregory Campbell’s ‘curried yoghurt’ comments on the Irish language at the DUP conference have also caused annoyance in Sinn Fein circles with many blaming Robinson for not doing more to discipline him. This also led to the awkward recordings of Gerry Adams and Michelle Gildernew calling Unionists a number of derogatory names. This perhaps shows that even if the DUP appear to be getting on well with Sinn Fein in public, in private they remain as opposed to each other as they ever were.
Furthermore, the DUP has not changed its positions on matters of morality such as gay marriage and abortion. When Sinn Fein introduced a motion calling for same sex marriage a DUP backed petition of concern was used to reject the motion, as the DUP disagrees with Sinn Fein’s equality agenda. The DUP is the only party with enough votes to reject a proposal outright as it has over 30 Assembly seat (38 MLAs). Edwin Poots has been accused of homophobic policies over his ban on blood from homosexuals. This harkens back to the days of Paisley and his ‘save Ulster from sodomy’ campaign, proof that the DUP hasn’t totally abandoned its fundamentalist routes. The DUP does find itself treading on egg shells sometimes as it represents a deeply conservative evangelical Christian heartland – which it dare not offend. This can make some of its political decisions increasingly tough to make.
Although newer members of the DUP are in support of softening the policy on parades, as outlined earlier in this essay, the more established members remain committed to their original policy regarding parades. Many people see the parades issue as a microcosm of the Northern Ireland problem itself. Nationalists have been blocking parades on an ongoing basis, and the DUP responded by tagging the issue of parading to the devolving of policing and justice in 2010. Many feel that Unionist politicians overestimate how much their voters care about parades. Furthermore, disputes over the flag issue that led to serious rioting in Belfast in 2012 remain unresolved. It goes without saying that the DUP are in favour of flying the Union flag all year round, another area in which their policy has not changed.
The DUP has also not changed its policies on the issue of education. The DUP calls for all schools to be treated equally through removal of the statutory advantage for Irish Medium and Integrated schools. It also calls for greater autonomy to be given to schools so that a controlled or maintained school could enjoy the autonomy which Voluntary Grammars and Integrated schools currently benefit from. It is in support of academic selection.
Finally, the DUP has remained true to its commitment to leaving the EU. This is another policy that harkens back to the days of Paisley, who was deeply suspicious of the EU. The DUP is the only party of the ‘big five’ that are backing the leave campaign for the referendum on 23rd June.
To conclude, the DUP ability to adapt is a huge strength. It has managed to do a 360 degree turn on its opposition to the GFA and working with SF to working integrally with them in the NI Assembly to such an extent that other parties call it a carve up. They managed to create the deal and bring most of their supporters with them. There is no doubt that it has had many policy changes since 2003, but at the same time they have stuck fast on issues such as homosexuality, the EU and education. What remains to be seen is how Arlene Foster’s leadership will reflect on any new policies.