As a third-generation, card-carrying member of the Ulster Unionist Party, it is rather bemusing, but certainly not amusing, to read, listen and watch the very public spats within the rival DUP as the battle for the heart and soul of the Assembly’s currently largest Unionist party unfolds at an unbelievable pace.
For the DUP to overtake the UUP required the Paisley-founded party to politically steal the latter’s policies, position on the Unionist spectrum, and ultimately voters and seats.
That breakthrough came in the 2003 Assembly poll when the DUP finally overtook the UUP in terms of MLAs and was copper-fastened in the 2005 Westminster General Election when the DUP snatched a number of previously safe UUP Commons seats.
But in snatching the UUP’s traditional political ground, it also inherited the pitfall which has dogged the UUP for decades – public infighting.
From its inception in 1971 as it evolved from the former Protestant Unionist Party which lifted first the Bannside Stormont seat and then the previously rock-solidly safe UUP Commons seat of North Antrim – both in 1970 – the DUP has always been a movement which could keep its internal rows very largely behind closed doors.
The DUP’s political shotgun marriage of Christian fundamentalists, evangelicals and working class loyalists could always be carefully controlled and contained.
In the years following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the UUP tore itself apart publicly between the Yes and No camps as the pro-Trimble and pro-Agreement Re:Union faction locked horns in seemingly endless meetings of the ruling Ulster Unionist Council with the staunchly anti-Agreement Union First pressure group.
That UUP feud peaked in 2004 when three MLAs - including current DUP boss Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and former First Minister Arlene Foster - walked out of the UUP to a fanfare in the DUP. There was also a steady trickle of UUP members to the DUP.
So should it come as any surprise that the DUP has exploded into public feuding? The key observation should be that DUP2022 is now being run by people who were former anti-Agreement ‘rebels’ within the UUP in the ‘Noughties’ rather than the traditionalist Christian fundamentalist wing which had run the ‘Good Ship DUP’ very steadily in terms of internal discipline during the Paisley senior era.
Last year’s DUP public leadership battles, coups, and counter-coups which saw the party elect three leaders in as many months would never have taken place during the late Paisley senior era. The Paisley-run and Peter Robinson-run DUP brands always settled their arguments and differences strictly behind closed doors.
With the ex-UUP faction wanting to modernise the DUP, especially with a Stormont General Election looming in May, the Donaldson-led party now resembles the UUP which entered the then 2003 Assembly poll with candidates who were both pro and anti-Agreement standing, prompting the question in 2003 - will the real UUP please stand up?
The same question was posed of the UUP in the final European election in 2019 when the UUP lost its relatively safe seat to the Alliance Party.
The problem with the DUP is the old saying - a leopard doesn’t change its spots! When the traditional fundamentalists were in control of the DUP, internal disputes were successfully kept mainly under wraps.
But when the ‘blow-ins’ from the UUP took control of the party with their history of public infighting, it was only a matter of time before the ethos of ‘airing one’s dirty political linen in public’ took hold.
And that’s the simple reason why DUP2022 brand now finds itself as a carbon copy of UUP2002 brand. The modern-day DUP now finds itself - as the lead party in Unionism for the time being - engulfed in the same public internecine disputes as the then ruling Unionist party of the early years of the new millennium, the UUP.
The real question now facing the DUP is how it avoids the same electoral meltdowns as the UUP faced as a result of its public rows over the Belfast Agreement, or is Project Fear in the form of Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill as First Minister enough to secure the DUP as the top spot in Stormont?
Does the DUP swing to the radical Right and finish off the Traditional Unionist Voice, even though the latter only has its party leader Jim Allister as its sole MLA?
Or, does the DUP try to out-liberal the UUP and deflate the so-called ‘Beattie Bounce’ by presenting the former as a liberal, progressive, modern Unionist party, which during the election campaign, has demoted the Holy Bible to the car boot? And in so doing, the DUP also wins back so-called Alliance protest voters?
This prompts the view - is there really a centre ground in Northern Ireland politics, or is it just a case of tactical voting by traditional UUP and DUP voters to send warning shots to the leaderships of their respective parties?
Ironically, in terms of Unionist unity, the various pro-Union parties may have to swallow the bitter medicine after May’s Assembly poll of a Sinn Fein First Minister for one mandate until they get the Good Friday Agreement once again amended back to the largest designation, rather than the largest party as the DUP gave away at St Andrews in 2006.
Indeed, rather than crash the Assembly either over the Protocol or a Sinn Fein First Minister, Unionism should nominate a deputy First Minister and make political life as awkward for Michelle O’Neill as possible (or whoever Sinn Fein under the direction of the Provisional IRA’s Army Council says should be the First Minister nominee!).
In short, what is ultimately needed if the DUP’s 2022 version of Project Fear does not deliver Sir Jeffrey Donaldson the post of First Minister is a Pan Unionist Front, akin to the old United Ulster Unionist Council, or Unionist Coalition, which existed successfully in the 1970s.
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.