Leak reveals the DUP knows how much trouble it is in

Posted By: March 18, 2021


Leaked minutes of the DUP South Antrim constituency association revealed complaints about off-piste remarks by Sammy Wilson.


Newton Emerson. Irish News. Belfast. Thursday, March 18, 2021


The minutes of a DUP meeting have been leaked to the News Letter, revealing a party that knows how much trouble it is in over Brexit but has no idea what to do about it.


The meeting of the South Antrim constituency association, conducted online on February 25, was attended by MP Paul Girvan, MLAs Trevor Clarke, and Pam Cameron, and 15 other party members, mostly councilors. Five people sent apologies for their absence.


The minutes provide a rare glimpse behind the scenes of the secretive DUP. Members are shown to be capable of speaking frankly to each other about party problems – a prerequisite for fixing them. Some intriguing speculation is clearly underway. Fears are expressed that the DUP might not be the largest party after the next Stormont election. Although no poll indicates this is plausible, Brexit has demoralized the DUP enough to contemplate it regardless.


“DUP on back foot, lose seats, drastic change is needed”, one note reads. The minutes also note, in relation to Brexit, that “bringing down the assembly is not an option.”


So, the DUP is prepared to stay in office as Sinn Féin’s ‘deputy’ – something it has never properly confirmed.


Clarke is recorded saying an “Irish Language Act will be delivered before next election”, two weeks before leader Arlene Foster revealed this in the assembly. Another note adds: “Arlene needs to sell it to the country!”


So the DUP has learned its lesson from the 2017 collapse of Stormont and the deal the following year that almost restored devolution before Foster got cold feet over promoting language legislation to her party and its voters.


However, nobody in South Antrim extends this lesson to Brexit – another instance where the DUP has to swallow its pride and sell a difficult compromise. The comparison is valid. There is no reason why inspecting an occasional packet of ham at Larne has to be more contentious a few months from now than bilingual street signs were three years ago.


Getting the required number of inspections down to a practical level will be a matter of implementation and negotiation. The minutes refer instead to the “need to have the protocol removed totally,” which is effectively impossible, certainly at the DUP’s pay grade.


Most of the sea border would evaporate if the UK rejoined the EU customs union and single market but there is no mention of this in the minutes. ‘South Antrim for a Soft Brexit’ will presumably not be appearing on DUP election literature.


Perhaps the most revealing detail in the minutes might seem the most trivial. The association’s treasurer reveals that just 12 membership fees are fully paid up for the year in this DUP heartland constituency.


A crucial, little-appreciated fact about unionism’s largest party is that it is a tiny political organization. The DUP probably has the fewest ordinary active members of the five executive parties and is the most centralized party of any significance in the UK or Ireland. Only its MPs and MLAs vote in leadership contests, for example, not that the DUP has ever had a leadership contest. Members and even councilors have no say – a poor incentive for supporters to get involved. The DUP may take plenty of soundings on the ground but in practice, the entire party consists of its head office and 160 elected representatives.


A sense of reacting rather than leading comes strongly across in the minutes. Noting with alarm that unionist and loyalist anger is “at boiling point”, the first instinct of members is to call for more centralization: head office needs to “rein in people from the top”, the constituency chair is reported as saying. Others concur, complaining about off-piste remarks by Sammy Wilson and Edwin Poots. Sinn Féin’s control freakery is cited as the model: “SF told what to say, DUP should do the same.”


The flip-side of Sinn Féin’s command and control is its constant attempts to engage with its hinterland and build a mass-membership organization. Those efforts may be of mixed success and sincerity but at least republicans recognize the need to connect with their base.


The DUP might not have painted itself into such a tight Brexit corner if it had been more engaged with the unionist population, which backed leave by around 60 percent – entirely compatible with a soft Brexit.


Too late for that now, of course, but it is hard for the DUP to see a way out while it remains a strange, standoffish little club.