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Northern Irish Politics and the DUP – from Protest to Power

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📥  Public Policy, Society

Dr Sophie Whiting, lecturer in our Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies, recently won the prestigious Political Studies Association of Ireland Brian Farrell Book Prize for the Best Book published in Political Science for her co-authored book ‘The Democratic Unionist Party: From Protest to Power’. Here she blogs on the key messages from the book and its relevance for contemporary politics in Northern Ireland.

Dr Whiting with Northern Ireland First Minister, Peter Robinson at the book launch.

Dr Whiting with Northern Ireland First Minister and DUP Leader, Peter Robinson, at the book launch.

From Protest to Power, published last year by Oxford University Press, is the result of a two-year Leverhulme Trust research project on the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland. Drawing upon unprecedented access to a party historically suspicious of outsiders, the book offers a unique insight in to an organisation traditionally viewed as a party of opposition grounded in Protestant religious principles.

For more than forty years following the party’s formation in 1971, the DUP was led by the fundamentalist Protestant preacher, the Reverend Ian Paisley, who opposed all compromises with Irish Catholic Nationalists and Republicans in his stout defence of Northern Ireland’s position in the UK. Having campaigned vehemently against the Good Friday Agreement back in 1998, it amazed many, including party members, that by 2006 the party had agreed to enter a power-sharing arrangement with its historic enemy, Sinn Féin.

Largest Northern Irish party yielding weight in Westminster

Today the DUP are the largest party in Northern Ireland and with eight MPs are the fourth largest in Westminster (in joint place with the Liberal Democrats). As well as being a dominant player in Northern Ireland’s devolved government, with a precarious Conservative majority in the House of Commons, the party also hopes to wield influence at a national level. Considering the transitions made by the DUP during the Northern Irish peace process, the greater role offered to regional parties in national politics and devolved assembly elections in 2016 the book engages with a range of contemporary political issues.

Drawing upon survey data of DUP membership and over 100 interviews with elected representatives, in the book we explore the attitudinal and demographic basis of the party. In terms of the current political arrangements, the party membership is largely supportive of devolved power sharing; over 83 per cent support the Northern Irish Executive. There is also overwhelming agreement (79 per cent) that Northern Irelands place in the Union is secure.

Whilst generally supportive of devolved institutions, a large number of the party are sceptical over the future prospects of the region, with less than a third believing there is a lasting peace in Northern Ireland. Given the recent political turbulence in Northern Ireland and the conclusion reached by an independent report last week that the IRA Army Council ‘still exists’, such sceptical feelings towards future peace will have been exacerbated, even if these paramilitary structures maintain a ‘purely political focus’.

Religious fervour and party politics

In addition to unpicking views on the future of politics and peace in the region, the book highlights members’ fears surrounding the dilution of religious fervour within the party. Data collected of party membership illuminates the moral and social conservatism that continues to influence DUP policy. Amongst members, 96 per cent identify as Protestant whilst nearly 60 per cent go to church once or more a week; the religious basis of the party therefore continues to shape their position on certain ‘moral’ issues.

For example, the membership survey revealed strong resistance to the introduction of same sex marriage; over two thirds of members believe that homosexuality is wrong. Such opposition is also reflected at the level of elected representatives where the DUP has vetoed same-sex marriage in the Northern Irish Assembly on three separate occasions. Another contentious topic is abortion, where in Northern Ireland, unlike the rest of the UK, can only be carried out if the physical or mental health of the mother is at risk. Amongst party members 73 per cent oppose the legalisation of abortion being extended to the region. Furthermore, three-quarters of members responded that they would mind if a close relative were to marry someone of a different religion. Within the party, moral and political matters are often viewed as intertwined, a stance also expressed at the level of elected representatives. Asked about the influence of religion on the party, one Assembly member responded: ‘I believe that politics came about through religion ….if you use the Ten Commandments you can also formulate every law that you need.’

For the first time ever a unique insight has been offered in to the DUP, a party not only influential at a devolved level but also national politics. Considering the seismic shifts of the DUP from being self-positioned ‘outsiders’ to a party at the heart of a devolved government, the book unveils much about conflict transformation as well as party politics more generally.

Dr Whiting with co-authors on 'From Protest to Power' and Northern Irish First Minister, Peter Robinson.

Dr Whiting with co-authors on 'From Protest to Power' and Northern Irish First Minister, Peter Robinson.

To order a copy of The Democratic Unionist Party – from Power to Protest (2014) Tonge, J., Braniff, M,. Hennessey, T., McAuley, J. and Whiting, S.A. see http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198705772.001.0001/acprof-9780198705772 .

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