The Democratic Unionist Party chalks up its half century in existence this year, the same year as Northern Ireland celebrates a century of being a separate state on the island of Ireland.
Established in 1971 by the former First Minister of Northern Ireland, the late Rev Ian Paisley - later Lord Bannside - the party came into existence some two decades after the evangelical Christian preacher Rev Paisley had launched his own fundamentalist denomination, the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster in 1951.
Indeed, over the decades, such was the influence of the so-called ‘Free P’s’ on the party, the Free Church was often dubbed the ‘DUP at prayer’!
Prior to the launch of the DUP in 1971, Paisleyite candidates in Stormont elections ran under the banner of Protestant Unionists, and therein lay the foundations of the success of the party.
The Protestant Unionists and the DUP were essentially a ‘two fingered salute’ to the establishment Ulster Unionist Party which had run Northern Ireland since the inception of the state in the early 1920s.
The DUP’s success was a political shotgun marriage between two elements of the pro-Union community in the late Sixties and early Seventies which were largely seen as voiceless in terms of electoral influence - fundamentalist Christians and the Protestant working class.
The Unionist Party was for many decades after 1921 dominated by the Protestant middle and upper classes - known as ‘Big House’ Unionists, or more bluntly the ‘Fur Coat Brigade’ - as well as theologically liberal elements within the three main Protestant denominations - the Church of Ireland, Presbyterianism and Methodism.
I recall as a primary school pupil, two lads waving ‘Vote Paisley’ posters in class when the headmaster had left the room - one was a Church of Ireland working class lad; the other a lad from the Brethren denomination from a middle class farming background.
Ironically, the DUP’s first electoral successes came in April 1970, a year prior to its launch when Rev Paisley and his fellow ‘Free P cleric’, the Rev William Beattie - both then running on a Protestant Unionist ticket - won two Stormont Parliamentary by-elections in Bannside and South Antrim respectively.
Both seats had previously been staunchly safe Ulster Unionists bastions. When Rev Paisley stepped down as First Minister and entered the House of Lords, he took the title Lord Bannside in recognition of this election victory.
A matter of months later in the June 1970 Westminster General Election, Rev Paisley clinched the North Antrim seat, defeating the sitting Ulster Unionist MP Henry Clark by almost 3,000 votes. North Antrim has been a DUP Commons stronghold ever since.
Although I have been a card carrying member of the Ulster Unionist Party since 1977 when I joined the party’s youth wing, the Young Unionists, my ‘political activity’ began in 1970 as a 10-year-old when I served sandwiches in the Presbyterian Manse to a very visibly shaken Mr Clark after a heated encounter with Paisleyite supporters in the staunchly Protestant Co Antrim village of Clough.
I walked into the living room of the Manse and immediately noticed the cigarette smoke. There was Henry, sitting at the table nervously puffing away as my late dad Rev Dr Robert Coulter MBE (later a UUP MLA) and another Presbyterian Minister and Orange chaplain tried to calm the ‘soon to be the outgoing’ UUP MP. Henry had just been told that graffiti had appeared in the village - ‘Shoot Clark’.
I recall my dad also being called by the RUC to an Orange Hall where Paisley supporters outside had a leading officer in the UUP branch besieged inside. Dad escorted the UUP man - a typical aristocratic farmer - to safety through the Paisley supporting crowd.
Rev Paisley built his power base on the loyalist working class, but his DUP generally played second fiddle politically to the ruling UUP. It would not be until the Northern Ireland Assembly election of 2003, followed by the Westminster General election two years later that the DUP would overtake and establish its dominance electorally over the UUP.
To overtake the UUP, the DUP would have to expand its appeal beyond the loyalist working class and into the electorally lucrative pro-Union Protestant middle class as well as the exclusively Protestant Loyal Orders, such as the Orange Order, Royal Black Institution and Apprentice Boys.
But the DUP 2021 is an entirely different political beast to DUP 1971. Gone are the shadowy links to loyalist paramilitary groups, such as the Third Force (1981) and the Ulster Resistance (1986).
Indeed, it could be suggested that the reason the DUP became the lead party in the pro-Union community in Northern Ireland was in ‘stealing’ the UUP’s policies, middle class voter base - and the UUP’s electors!
In practice, has the DUP 2021 become UUP 1985 when the late Sir James Molyneaux was leader of the latter in the aftermath of the signing of that year’s Anglo-Irish Agreement?
Perhaps the real success of the DUP is that while it took a stance against the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, when over 70 per cent of voters on the referendum supported the Agreement, in less than a decade, the DUP had become the lead voice for the pro-Union electorate.
However, the era of the pandemic has witnessed the DUP indulge in a practice which was previously the prerogative of the Ulster Unionists - airing its dirty political linen in public.
Firstly, the then First Minister and leader Arlene Foster (a former UUP member) was deposed in a coup by the DUP’s traditional Paisleyite fundamentalist wing to be replaced by Edwin Poots.
He, in turn, within days was himself deposed in a counter coup to be replaced by current leader, the Lagan Valley MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (another UUP defector!).
A recent LucidTalk poll had the DUP trailing in third place among pro-Union voters behind a resurgent UUP and the more hardline Traditional Unionist Voice party led by former DUP MEP Jim Allister.
Donaldson faces three big challenges before the next Stormont election in May 2022. How does he heal the rifts in the party between the modernisers and the traditionalists? How does he ensure that the DUP remains as the largest party in the Assembly, allowing him to become First Minister?
But more significantly, how does Donaldson get rid of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which created an economic border in the Irish Sea?
He has threatened to pull his party’s ministers out of the power-sharing Stormont Executive, effectively collapsing the devolved institutions unless there is a successful resolution by the British Government to the Protocol.
Then again, as a Westminster MP, does Donaldson know what could be contained in the Government’s Command Paper due to be released shortly, which could effectively ‘dump’ the Protocol into the dustbin of history?
The DUP was founded on the principle of challenging the ‘Big House’ Unionism of the UUP. However, the DUP has itself become ‘Big House’ Unionism in that it is now the leading party in Northern Ireland’s ‘Big House’, namely Parliament Buildings at Stormont.
If the British Government does not either trigger Article 16 or the Command Paper fails to neutralise the effects of the Protocol and the DUP collapses Stormont in the middle of the pandemic, will the voters still flock in their thousands to ‘vote DUP’?
This is the high wire gamble the DUP has embarked upon. This gamble will certainly be something delegates at the 50th anniversary party celebrations will have to seriously ponder.
Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter
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.