DUP Conference 2022: Where unionism is and where it might go…

The Three Kingdoms of Unionism

The DUP will be holding its annual conference this weekend. I can remember in August 2021, the DUP was at its lowest point in LucidTalk’s opinion poll at 13% with its rivals the UUP and TUV at 16% and 14% respectively. Now, one year on, as of August 2022, the DUP sits at 24%; the UUP at 11%; and TUV at 6% according to LucidTalk’s opinion poll.

This time last year, it was believed the DUP would split in seats to its rivals the more liberal UUP and the more conservative TUV following the DUP 2021 leadership contest. Had there been an Assembly election in 2021, it would have been interesting to have seen the results of it. However, the Assembly election was in 2022 and the DUP has mostly recovered, keeping all but three of its seats (seat losses in Strangford, North Antrim and with Alex Easton being elected as an Independent Unionist in North Down). UUP lost a seat in East Antrim and TUV, despite increasing its first-preference vote by 5% with a record-breaking 65,788 first-preference votes, only returned its Leader Jim Allister.

The DUP’s vote share is down by 6.7% from the 2017 Assembly election to 21.3% (previously, this was at 28.1%). However, success is not measured by vote share; it is measured by seats. Its vote share in opinion polls has been rebuilding after Jeffrey Donaldson became Leader of the Party. The DUP has 8 MPS and 25 MLAs. UUP is on 9 MLAs and TUV is on 1 MLA, with neither having Commons representation. So the DUP still remains comfortably the largest unionist party.

However, being the largest unionist party also means having the largest responsibility with where to lead unionism. The DUP’s hardline stance on the protocol seems to be enjoying overall unionist support, according to LucidTalk’s August 2022 poll, including significant backing from TUV voters and a significant minority of UUP voters. This is a clear attempt by the party to win back TUV support. However, it will be interesting to see as we go into the colder, darker months of winter if its hardline position on the protocol is still supported.

Where the DUP are at risk is from the Alliance Party, which took 2 seats from it in the recent Assembly election. The DUP’s hardline stance on the protocol might be unappealing to moderates who are not motivated by the issue and who just want to see a full return to devolution. The social conservatism of the DUP is also frequently referenced by supporters of the Alliance Party who hold more socially liberal stances.

DUP Leader’s Speech: What might be in it?

When Jeffrey Donaldson makes his speech to the DUP conference, I will be watching to find out who the DUP are today, where they want to go and how the audience will react to each part of the DUP Leader’s speech. With the possibility of a winter Assembly election, this will likely be among the most important speeches the DUP Leader will make from now until then to rally support amongst party activists and broaden unionism’s appeal. He will likely cover a diverse range of topics to appeal to a wide base for the media to quote him on in news coverage.

I predict the DUP Leader will talk about in detail the party’s achievements when they were in government (the £100 ‘Spend Local’ card comes to mind to help local businesses recover from the pandemic); and the DUP’s flagship five-point plan on removing the protocol, helping families, the NHS, education and the economy. I also think the party leader might mention the party’s commitment to its pro-life position on abortion and will cover other topics such as agriculture and the environment.

The DUP Leader will probably give his assessment on where unionism is today in regards to there being three unionist parties in the Assembly and the need for unionist unity for the DUP to reclaim the right to nominate a First Minister in the event of a winter election. I also predict the DUP Leader will talk about the benefits of the union against a united Ireland in response to the recent Ireland’s Future event in Dublin and media coverage of the census results.

Where unionism might go?

In terms of ideology, I note that the DUP Leader apologised in 2021 for the party’s past in relation to comments various elected representatives made about the LGBT community. This indicates to me the party might in the future quietly modernise on LGBT issues by moving to a free vote on them to keep in line with contemporary social attitudes, especially with same-sex marriage no longer being a political issue. This modernisation will be a natural, organic change reflecting generational change in attitudes within its membership. The DUP is a socially conservative party but it is also a pragmatic party. It knows it will need to allow its liberal wing to work on engaging with the LGBT community to broaden unionism’s base.

If the DUP do get the removal of the NI protocol or significant changes to it that satisfy the leadership to fully restore devolution, I would predict they would nominate a Deputy First Minister as the DUP is ultimately a devolutionist party. It has previously served in government with Sinn Fein and unionism would have comfort in knowing it would still have its veto to keep Sinn Fein in check. Unionism is more concerned about the damaging effects of the protocol and the cost of living crisis.

We are in a new era of three-bloc party politics in Northern Ireland. We will soon get a comprehensive overview of the DUP Leader’s thoughts when he addresses the DUP conference this weekend in regards to the many challenges unionism will face.

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