Now that we know the official runners for the DUP’s historic contest for leadership and deputy leadership, the real question for punters is whether the party reverts to its founding Paisleyite roots, or confirms a role more akin to the Ulster Unionist Party under its late leader James Molyneaux in 1986?
The DUP’s founding father, the late Rev Ian Paisley, established the DUP in 1971 - 20 years after he had founded his Christian fundamentalist denomination, the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster. Indeed, the Free P’s were often dubbed ‘the DUP at prayer’ such was the grip which Free Presbyterians had on the direction of the movement.
When Rev Paisley clinched both the Bannside Stormont seat and the North Antrim Westminster seat in 1970 from the Ulster Unionists under the banner of Protestant Unionist, he did so by giving a political voice to two previously muted sections of the pro-union community in Northern Ireland at that time - working class loyalists, and fundamentalist and evangelical Christians.
In the late 1960s and very early Seventies, Ulster Unionism was dominated by the ‘Big House’ Unionist families and the so-called upper middle class ‘Fur Coat Brigade’. Christian fundamentalism and even staunch evangelicals had no real voice in the dominant Unionist Party in terms of religious affiliation.
Since its formation, apart from occasional election successes in specific constituencies, the DUP played second fiddle politically in the pro-Union community until the 2003 Assembly and 2005 Westminster elections when it overtook the UUP to become the leading party for Unionism.
Since then, and especially after the 2006 St Andrews Agreement which ushered in the so-called ‘Chuckle Brothers’ era of Paisley senior and the late Martin McGuinness a year later, the DUP has slowly liberalised from its founding roots to evolve into a political replica of the 1986 UUP. Its recently deposed leader, Arlene Foster, came from the UUP.
Likewise, while the DUP under Rev Paisley was to inherit the UUP’s members, seats and position within the pro-Union spectrum, it was to also inherit the UUP’s infighting factions - although for many years the DUP had the discipline not to air its political dirty linen in public.
While Paisley senior, Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster were all ‘anointed’ as DUP leaders without a contest, Friday will see the first-ever contest for these top posts.
However, the real issue is not so much who will be appointed by the DUP’s ‘electoral college’, but what direction that team will take the party in.
The fundamentalist Paisleyites will be hoping for their ‘dream team’ of Stormont Farming Minister Edwin Poots for leader and his campaign manager, Assemblyman Paul Frew from North Antrim, for deputy.
The evangelical modernisers will want Sir Jeffrey Donaldson to scoop the top post, with his fellow Westminster MP Gregory Campbell from East Londonderry as deputy. Then again, would North Belfast MLA Paula Bradley - a candidate for deputy leader - be seen as a compromise candidate if the leadership was decided by only a handful of ‘electoral college’ votes?
A Poots/Frew victory would see the power base of the DUP rest with Stormont and a staunchly devolutionist approach given that the DUP no longer has a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement with the Conservative party - especially taking into account current PM Boris Johnston’s Commons majority and the fact the Tories are notching up previously safe Labour-held seats, such as Hartlepool.
A Donaldson/Campbell victory would equally see the DUP’s power base shift to Westminster in the battle to combat the effects of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Could a situation arise whereby Donaldson or Campbell - or both - see the need to forsake their Westminster seats and return to the devolved Assembly in next May’s expected Stormont poll?
Election wise, the growth of the Alliance vote - especially in traditionally Unionist seats - must be of a serious concern to the future DUP leadership.
Data kicking around suggests that for every vote the DUP lost to the even more hardline Traditional Unionist Voice of Jim Allister’s, the DUP lost three votes to Alliance.
The gamble which the DUP must take in its analysis is - are these former DUP voters genuine liberal voters, or is the so-called ‘Alliance Bounce’ a massive protest vote by Unionists against the DUP over issues such as RHI, Brexit and a perceived disconnection with the loyalist working class?
Throw into the mix the debate over an Irish Language Act and the DUP could find itself again playing second fiddle politically come May 2022, but this time to Sinn Fein in the Assembly. Indeed, could the ‘nuclear’ result come about whereby the next Stormont Executive is not a power-sharing administration dominated by Sinn Fein and DUP ministers, but by Sinn Fein and Alliance ministers? In that scenario, a border poll is inevitable.
Does the new DUP leadership decide to battle to get the Protocol scrapped completely, or mess it up from within by making the Protocol physically unworkable in Northern Ireland? Would this latter strategy involve collapsing the Stormont Executive and Assembly, ushering in a new era of Direct Rule from Westminster, or worse still for the pro-union community, some form of joint authority between Dublin and London?
In short, does the DUP rebrand itself ideologically so that it resembles an anti-Protocol version of the now defunct liberal movement, NI21, in a bid to combat the drift to Alliance. This would make the so-called middle ground of politics the main battlefield for the May 2022 showdown.
That risks alienating Right-wing Unionism and loyalism. Could a more middle ground DUP be to the advantage of the TUV or a rejuvenation of the UUP, which has witnessed a steady decline in its fortunes since the turn of the new millennium?
Could we even see loyalists forming yet another movement with a revamped version of the old Ulster Loyalist Democratic Party, which existed in the early 1980s?
Or, would loyalism be content with voting for the current TUV, the Progressive Unionist Party, or the Ulster Political Research Group? Will the new DUP leadership be able to mend the bridges with the loyalist working class - and especially the Loyalist Communities Council - in time to get their electoral blessing for May 2022?
Similarly, would a Donaldson/Campbell victory use Westminster purely as its stomping ground, thereby sacrificing the Assembly as a protest against the Protocol.
It should not be forgotten that Donaldson cut his teeth politically under two of Unionism’s most devout integrationists - the late Jim Molyneaux and the late Enoch Powell.
Likewise, a Poots/Frew victory could see the DUP lurch to the Unionist Right-wing ideologically to combat any drift to the TUV. This would be based on the assumption that DUP voters who went to Alliance were doing so as a protest and not because they had converted en masse to liberal Unionism.
As the saying goes, Friday will tell a tale!
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Listen to commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 10.15 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online.