It could be argued that the UUP has been unsuccessful in mounting any challenge to the DUP.
The DUP remains the dominant unionist party, and it has been since 2003. It was founded in the 1970s by Ian Paisley and was based on the principles of implacable opposition to nationalism and opposition to any weakening of the union with NI and Great Britain. It was the second party in unionism up until the Good Friday Agreement, lagging considerably behind the dominant UUP (which had dominated unionism for 70 years.Its support was based on a stronger form of ‘no compromise’ unionism/loyalism with a solid working class but also middle class, conservative vote.
It is traditionally linked to the fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church, but in more recent times has tried to reach a wider audience. The Good Friday agreement was the point that marked the beginning of the UUP’s decline and also the beginning of the DUP’s rise to dominance. No amount of new strategies by the UUP can reverse the damage that agreeing to the GFA caused. DUP were of course firmly against the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
However, this time it found itself at odds with the UUP and bitterly opposed the party as it tried to bring peace. Rather than being the odd one out the DUP set on a strategy of working against the Agreement from within the new NI Assembly in an attempt to destroy it from within. This was clearly succeeding. The UUP were being steadily undermined by their strategy of working with Sinn Fein in the absence of decommissioning of weapons.
Unionists felt as if they were making all the concessions (such as prisoner release and RUC reform) without anything in return. The DUP revelled in its opposition to the UUP and gradually took votes.It made the first Assembly almost unworkable – refusing to attend meetings with Sinn Fein or refusing to go to the NSMC meetings. Ironically, the agreement it set out to destroy was also the making of the DUP.
Their opposition to the GFA propelled the party to its present dominance. The St Andrews Agreement saw the DUP take the very risky and highly pragmatic step of sharing power with SF on the basis that the IRA decommissioned weapons (it did in 2005) and that SF signed up to support policing and justice (This was part of the Ministerial code signed by all parties after 2007.The very public acceptance by the DUP of SF was widely welcomed across the world as an amazing sign of peace. Paisley and McGuinness had a remarkable relationship as First and Deputy First Minister –becoming known as the chuckle brothers.
HOWEVER, this hid deep divisions WITHIN the DUP over the St Andrews agreement. Tensions were high and many harder line elements were jettisoning the party – such as Jim Allister (TUV) and 7 DUP councillors. Paisley was also a victim of this hardening stance.He was forced out by critics such as Dodds and Campbell and replaced by Peter Robinson as First Minister.
The hurt and division of this only really raised its head recently in a BBC documentary on Paisley, Genesis to Revelation – in which he slammed those who had forced him out. The DUP also uses the fear of Sinn Fein in order to dominate unionism. They claim that they are the only party strong enough to keep Sinn Fein out of power. In fact, in their election campaign they bluntly said that a vote for the UUP is a vote for Sinn Fein.
As Sinn Fein increases, people vote for the DUP out of fear. This is especially so after issues such as the arrest of Gerry Adams in relation to the disappearance and murder of Jean McConville, a mother of 10 in 1972. The DUP consistently opposes Sinn Fein on matters such as flags, parading and the past. The main way in which the DUP can maintain dominance against Sinn Fein and others is through the petition of concern.
All legislation must be passed by OFMdFM and this can lead to legislation getting killed before it is initiated if either of the ‘big two’ do not like it.MLAs have the possibility of raising a Petition of Concern if they believe there is an issue which is a serious concern to their community. To enact this they have to achieve the support of 30 MLAs. In such cases, a vote on proposed legislation will only pass if a weighted majority (60%) of members voting, with at least 40% of each community present and voting.
It gives each community a veto to prevent decisions or legislation being made which can affect them. Mark Durkan of the SDLP claimed that it was being, “played like a joker. ”A good example of the petition of concern being used is in the rejection of a Sinn Fein motion calling for same sex marriage. A DUP backed petition of concern was used to reject the motion.
The DUP is the only party with enough votes to reject a proposal outright as it has over 30 Assembly seat (38 MLAs). This proves that the DUP are the only party that can veto Sinn Fein, because the smaller parties are unable to use petition of concerns. For example, the UUP were against the devolution of Policing and Justice because they believed that the assembly wasn’t ready.However, they didn’t have the numbers for a veto.
Furthermore, it could be argued that the UUP has become too fragmented and this has led to its decline and the subsequent rise of the DUP. For example, Basil McCrea left the UUP to form NI21, yet another unionist party. Unlike the UUP which is a ‘broad church’ with a Variety of different opinions of all shades (left and right wing) the DUP is much more homogenous and ideologically fixed. It is a conservative party with quite a narrow and clear vision – socially, economically and politically.
Another reason that the UUP has been unsuccessful in halting its decline is that the DUP and UUP agree on many issues and therefore voters see no need for UUP. For voters the distinctions between the two parties are blurred. They are united in their opposition to an Irish language act, they both support grammar schools and academic selection, they both supported the welfare reforms and they were in agreement over most issues discussed during the Haass talks. The UUP has been partially successful in trying to create a new image, but ultimately one of its drawbacks is that it is far too similar to the DUP policy wise.
Finally, the DUP have very good vote management with the system of proportional representation. In the most recent election this was evident in the South Belfast constituency, where the two candidates were Emma Pengelly and Christopher Stalford. The DUP made sure they got an equal number of first and second preferences by managing the voting street by street. This was successful and both candidates were elected.
The UUP have been criticised for not having such a fine-tuned vote management strategy and this has cost them vital seats in the assembly.Its ascendancy would now seem complete: it has 38 MLAs, the DUP First Minister is Arlene Foster (ex-UUP), it has 8 Westminster MPs, and has a dominant position in local government. Arlene Foster’s leadership should be good for the DUP and should help it appeal to a wider audience outside of the traditional Free Presbyterian vote. This is very important.
It shows that a woman can lead a party as traditional and patriarchal as the DUP. To gain power without opposition is impressive. She is also not from the deeply conservative Free Presbyterian wing of the party but from Church of Ireland.Her Fermanagh background is also at odds with most of the party’s more traditional roots.
To conclude, the UUP has taken many successful steps to challenge DUP dominance, a while this has manged to win them some votes the DUP are still the biggest Unionist party by far. The decision of the UUP to go into opposition is very interesting and this may win them votes by presenting themselves as an alternative to the DUP/Sinn Fein executive. However, for now at least, the DUP is firmly in control of unionism.