Clapped-out DUP[worn out] needs more than a new drive

Posted By: May 08, 2021

Of the two DUP leadership candidates, Jeffrey Donaldson MP is the more polished, having lost his Mourne accent.


Patrick Murphy. Patrick Murphy. Belfast. Saturday, May 2021


In one way it does not matter who becomes the leader of the DUP.


It is a bit like a contest between two rally drivers, in which the successful candidate will be expected to win a major event in a dilapidated car that has just failed its MOT. The DUP needs more than a new driver.


In another way, it does matter – well, just a bit. There is a significant gap in political ability and experience between the two contestants, so the DUP’s future style, if not its reality, will depend on who wins.


Edwin Poots has limited political experience beyond tribal jousting at Stormont. His fundamentalist Christian views narrowly define his image. He apparently believes that the earth is 6,000 years old, ignoring the inconvenient truth that Ireland’s first settlers were living near Coleraine 9,000 years ago.


His idea of leading the party, but not the parliament, will hardly inspire confidence, particularly since his choice as first minister maybe Paul Givan. (It is unlikely that society would be significantly disadvantaged by Mr. Givan’s absence from that position. You may wish to politely expand on that sentiment yourself.)


Jeffrey Donaldson, on the other hand, is well connected within the British political establishment. For 14 years he has been a member of the Privy Council, which consists of the great and the good (well the great, anyway) of British politics, whose job is to defend and advise the queen in secret proceedings.


Membership apparently involves kissing the queen’s hand, suggesting that Jeffrey believes that some humans have the right to rule over the rest of us by virtue of their birth, which is as plausible as Edwin’s religious fundamentalism.


Of the two, Jeffrey is the more polished, having lost his Mourne accent. If Edwin’s accent is Ulster-Scots, Jeffrey’s is Ulster-English (and South East English at that.) Maybe historians will describe this as the battle of the accents.


The victorious candidate’s first task will be to lift the bonnet and examine the DUP’s engine. They will find a collection of disparate mechanical parts, randomly connected and generally pulling in opposite directions. More importantly, they will see that three key components are missing.


The first is a serious lack of talent. Diane Dodds is unconvincing and Peter Weir might do education a service by leaving it. Ironically, Edwin Poots, as agriculture minister, is one of the executive’s best performers.


Michelle McIlveen could comfortably replace him, since she previously handled the agriculture post well, but too many MLAs are foot soldiers rather than potential generals. (The return of Simon Hamilton would be an asset.)


The DUP’s second missing component is influential friends at an international level. Communication with the EU has to go through England and it rarely gets beyond Dover. Meanwhile, the Irish government lobbies strongly against unionism, so there is no one in Europe to argue against the Irish Sea border.


The DUP is also largely friendless in the US, where President Biden’s surprisingly partisan view of Ireland has frozen out unionists. With no friends in London, Dublin, Washington or Brussels, the DUP is isolated. It risks becoming the political equivalent of the USA’s devout Christian Amish people, who avoid all modern technology and effectively remain in the 17th Century.


The third missing component is political savvy. The DUP has no idea how to build the broad political base it requires to avoid electoral meltdown. It needs a radical internal program of training and education to develop an external marketing strategy for the widest possible unionist support. But learning has never been the DUP’s strong point.


The new leader is unlikely to replace any of those missing components. Whatever his accent, he will probably drape the clapped-out [worn out] engine in the Union Jack and close the bonnet. How well that works will determine the party’s MOT result at the forthcoming assembly election. It will be a test worth watching.