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Understanding the Democratic Unionist Party

Theresa May’s desperate search for an ally after a calamitous 2017 General Election saw the Democratic Unionist Party come under scrutiny like never before. The DUP is a party which has moved from its fundamentalist Protestant Paisleyite past – but not at a pace always noticeable to outsiders.

The DUP is comfortable in its own skin. When it allowed myself and four other academics to conduct a survey of the views of its members, we expected the party leadership to ask for some findings to be suppressed. Not at all – go ahead and publish your book we were told. We were talking about power in Belfast though. We did not imagine its extension to Westminster.

So, who are the DUP’s members and what do they think?

One-third of the DUP are drawn from the tiny Free Presbyterian Church, founded by Ian Paisley. The Church accounts for only 1% of Northern Ireland’s population. The DUP was created as a form of politicised Protestantism to espouse the ideas of that Church, opposing ecumenism and Romanism. Catholic membership amounts to 0.6%. In terms of actual numbers, let’s just say I’ve got more fingers on the hand that is typing this piece. The religious and social conservatism of DUP members is apparent. Most DUP members go to church weekly and describe themselves as very religious. 54% of the DUP say they would ‘mind a lot’ if a close relative married someone from a different religion. A majority believe homosexuality to be wrong, let alone support same-sex marriage. The DUP have vetoed the legalisation of same-sex marriage 5 times in Northern Ireland Assembly votes. A majority of DUP members also oppose the legalisation of abortion, prohibited in Northern Ireland unless the mother’s life is at risk.

It will come down to what money the Conservatives can offer Northern Ireland. And the Conservatives will have to offer plenty.

However, contrary to some of the wilder reports in the immediate post-election aftermath, the DUP wishes to confine its religious and moral conservatism to Northern Ireland. Moreover, the DUP’s primary demands in return for supporting an ailing Conservative government were designed to help the Northern Ireland economy, still short of private sector investment. The old DUP put Protestantism first. The new, modern DUP puts pounds first. The old Protestant party of protest still occasionally shows its hand, but the ‘new DUP’ of greater pragmatism is more commonly seen.

Historically, the DUP liked to say no – until it became top dog in Northern Ireland and did a jaw-dropping deal to share power with Sinn Fein in 2007. They opposed the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement in 1998 – and most members still say they would oppose it if a referendum was held today. For many DUP members, the peace and political processes have meant political and cultural retreat. 61% feel that policing reforms have ‘gone too far’. Most DUP members believe that there is considerable prejudice against Protestants in Northern Ireland.

The same percentage believes that the Orange Order  – a controversial organisation which prohibits its members from marrying Catholics or participating in Catholic religious services – should have unfettered marching rights in Northern Ireland, rather than have parades re-routed away from nationalist areas. It remains DUP policy to get rid of the Parades Commission, the regulatory body on such issues. That comes as little surprise when one considers that half of DUP elected representatives are members of the Orange Order.

How much Theresa May knew or cared about the views of her new friends is unknown. Westminster arithmetic was all that mattered. The DUP’s monopoly status as the friend of the Conservative Party (DUP members prefer the Tories to Labour by 7 to 1 ) meant the DUP could demand a high price. It will come down to what money the Conservatives can offer Northern Ireland. And the Conservatives will have to offer plenty.

Featured image credit: Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) office, Castle Street, Lisburn, County Antrim, Northern Ireland, November 2010 by Ardfern. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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