DUP Burning The Midnight Oil

The pro-Union community needs to get back to the ethos of the original 1998 Good Friday Agreement if it is to provide a realistic kick-start to the stalled peace process. Controversial commentator, Dr John Coulter, uses his Fearless Flying Column today to analyse how this can be achieved.
The 2006 St Andrews Agreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein may have been a short-term gain for devolution, but it has proven to be a long-term pitfall for the pro-Union community.

If Unionism wants to regain the upper hand politically in any future devolved Assembly, indeed even kick-start the current stalled process, it must implement the original ethos of the Good Friday Agreement which stated that the largest designation - Unionism or nationalism - could lay claim to the coveted First Minister’s post.

The largest designation principle worked well for the Trimble-Mallon era because it took advantage of the splits within the pro-Union community. In 1998, in the first Assembly following the signing of the Belfast Agreement, several shades of Unionism were represented - Ulster Unionists, Democratic Unionists, Progressive Unionists, United Kingdom Unionists, and United Unionist Assembly Party.

And on at least one occasion, the centrist Alliance Party was called upon to redesignate as Unionist to save the Assembly in a key vote. But all this was to change for Unionism following the 2003 Assembly and 2005 General elections. By the latter, the DUP had overtaken the rival UUP as the lead party in Unionism and Sinn Fein had passed the moderate SDLP in terms of Assembly seats.

The DUP and Sinn Fein had stolen their rivals political clothes - and seats - by roaming into the respective electorally lucrative middle classes, while still retaining their traditional working class roots.

But it was to the advantage of both the DUP and Sinn Fein to change the designation rule established in the Belfast Agreement. In 2006, it was better to have First Minister and deputy First Minister decided by the largest parties.

While this new ruling at St Andrews was to herald in in 2007 the era of the so-called Chuckle Brothers between the late Rev Ian Paisley and the late Martin McGuinness, it has created a dangerous long-term future for Unionism.

A decade later, the snap Assembly poll in 2017 following the collapse of power-sharing that January saw the DUP finish just one seat ahead of Sinn Fein as Unionism and nationalism opted for the two-party system, namely - which single party could best represent both camps? This left many middle class Unionists and nationalists who traditionally voted either UUP or SDLP in a terrible electoral dilemma. Ulster Unionists were forced to put DUP number one to keep out Sinn Fein, and moderate nationalists realised that voting for the Provisional IRA’s political wing could severely dent the DUP’s majority.

For some moderates in both camps, the decision was too painful given the years of internecine squabbling and they simply stayed at home. Moderate Unionism and nationalism still faces this voting dilemma with the crucial local government poll looming next year.

In the nationalist camp, to give SDLP voters some say, the party will either have to step aside, or merge with Fianna Fail to give moderate nationalism the much-needed all-Ireland identity to combat Sinn Fein. This will be especially true if Sinn Fein makes significant gains in the expected Dail General Election later this year and becomes a minority partner in the next Leinster House government.

Unionism is in an even bigger dilemma. For the pro-Union community to stay head of republicanism, there will have to be at least a pact between the DUP and UUP to save Unionist seats.

However, even if the respective leaderships of the UUP and DUP formally unveil an electoral pact to outgun republicanism, Unionist voters may repeat what they did in last year’s Westminster General Election and decide to only vote for the DUP tactically.

This saw the DUP return 10 MPs, with the UUP losing both its Commons seats. Based on the 2017 Westminster poll, the last thing the UUP needs or wants is another Assembly poll which could see the party’s current Stormont tally of 10 seats reduced by half to five MLAs.

Unionism has also got to face the electoral dilemma that liberal Unionists are not turning out for the UUP, but are defecting to Alliance.

While Alliance may use the forthcoming West Tyrone Westminster by-election to raise its profile west of the River Bann, the electoral reality is that Alliance will increase east of the Bann by focusing on traditionally Unionist constituencies. You need only look at who runs Alliance to see the strong influence of liberal Presbyterianism within the party.

What could save the UUP in the 2019 local government poll is the personal votes of councillors, namely, such people are not being elected because of their UUP ticket, but because of their personality profile among constituents. The real danger for Unionism is that it cannot mobilise its voters, that voters equally divide among a range of pro-Union candidates, that the ‘stay at home’ Unionism sector increases, and Alliance continues to grow in majority Unionist constituencies.

Such a scenario could then see the majority of Northern Ireland’s 11 so-called super councils turn politically green, fuelling speculation that Northern Ireland is part of an all-island structure in all but name.

Throw in any economic uncertainty with Brexit being implemented next March and Northern Ireland may be forced to stay afloat only if there is some form of Customs Union negotiated.

If the DUP cannot either agree an electoral pact with the UUP or obliterate the UUP at the polls, then the DUP must push the case for a merger with the UUP to simply form The Unionist Party.

Whatever strategy the DUP adopts, one bitter pill the DUP must swallow is that it must reinstate the community designation rule for a future Assembly poll as outlined in the Good Friday Agreement.

The DUP’s spin doctors will be burning the midnight oil to work out a communications strategy to sell to the traditional DUP voter base why the party wants to see one of the core principles of the Good Friday Agreement restored given the DUP’s clear commitment to the No Camp during the 1998 referendum on the Belfast Agreement.

The overwhelming danger for Unionism is that if it does not return to the largest designation concept, a future Stormont poll could see Sinn Fein finally pip the DUP as the largest party in the Assembly. Clearly, this would give Sinn Fein the coveted First Minister’s post.

Should Michelle O’Neill add the title of First Minister to her Northern Leader’s role, Sinn Fein will push for the posts of First and deputy First Ministers to be totally separate, just as Taoiseach and Tanaiste are separate posts in the Dail.

Could we see a situation as Northern Ireland prepares to celebrate the centenary of the founding of the state in the 1920s that Sinn Fein - as the largest party at Stormont - re-introduces the post of Northern Ireland Prime Minister?

For years, the post of Northern Ireland Prime Minister was the clear bastion of Unionism. Could we see a scenario where a future Northern Ireland centenary event sees Northern Ireland Prime Minister Michelle O’Neill along with Tanaiste Mary Lou McDonald meeting either Queen Elizabeth or King Charles at Buckingham Palace?

Don’t titter at this scenario. When I began my journalistic career in 1978, imagine the reaction if I had written opinion pieces suggesting that one day DUP leader and Free Presbyterian Church Moderator Rev Ian Paisley would sit in a power-sharing Executive at Stormont with the IRA’s political wing, or that Sinn Fein would support the police in Northern Ireland and even take its seats in a partitionist parliament? But these all happened, so don’t laugh when I predict that we could see a Sinn Fein Prime Minister at Stormont within a lifetime. 

John Coulter is a unionist political commentator and former Blanket columnist. 

John Coulter is also author of ‘An Sais Glas: (The Green Sash): The Road to National Republicanism’, which is available on Amazon Kindle.

Follow John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

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