Looking towards the DUP Conference 2023: Holding out for a better tomorrow…

The Windsor Framework

As we approach DUP Conference 2023, I read Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s article entitled: ‘The Windsor Framework does not go far enough to repair the damage to Northern Ireland and to restore Stormont. This is a time to hold our nerve’ published in the News Letter on 30th September 2023.

In this article, the DUP Leader argues that “the Windsor Framework represents significant progress, but it does not go far enough toward restoring Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom internal market and ensuring our constitutional position is respected.”

The DUP Leader wants to see devolution restored on “fair and sustainable conditions.” He is correct in pointing out that the Northern Ireland Protocol was successfully renegotiated despite many saying that it could not be. As a Politics graduate who has read a lot of world political history and many agreements, this did not surprise me. Look at how many agreements Northern Ireland has seen in its political history and look at all the times they have been renegotiated.

In political theory, an agreement only works if it enjoys political legitimacy (support) amongst those who hold power as confirmed in election results (political authority). If an agreement does not have political legitimacy, then what is the point of it? It must then be looked at again. However, agreements are not the only part of political machinery that may be looked at: the Stormont infrastructure itself and how it operates may also be looked at it.

So the question for the DUP Leader is for how much further to hold out until he achieves all that he possibly can from the UK Government? That is a judgement call. The DUP Leader is an experienced politician who has seen many agreements come and go. He believes he can achieve more: “Just because the Windsor Framework is the product of unionists standing together does not mean we are morally obliged to accept it. Nor should it mean further progress is not possible.” The “operational effectiveness of the Stormont brake”, the role of the EU and trading arrangements are areas the DUP Leader highlighted as examples of where further progress is possible.

The DUP within Unionism

The DUP has calculated it has political capital to continue holding out. Its rival the UUP suffered heavy losses of 21 seats in the 2023 local elections, reducing it from 75 seats (2019) to 54 seats (2023). Although the TUV gained three seats, it still only sits at nine seats (2023) when it previously had 13 seats in 2014 (the UUP had 88 seats during this time). The DUP on the other hand in 2014 had 130 seats and only lost eight seats in 2019 while in 2023 it maintained these seats overall currently sitting at 122 seats. This means the DUP currently commands two-thirds of unionist support compared to the UUP and TUV (the PUP lost two seats in 2023 and now only holds one seat; it used to hold four seats in 2014).

The recent LucidTalk poll reported in the Belfast Telegraph in August 2023 also similarly shows the DUP still commanding two-thirds support within unionism. It also showed Sir Jeffrey Donaldson being the most popular leader amongst unionists and that unionists are still supporting the DUP’s stance regarding the Windsor Framework.

How does the DUP maintain its support?

Many will ask how the DUP has managed to maintain its support when it has been under significant political pressure. My own view is the UUP is unable to distinguish itself from the DUP. Although the UUP would like to see devolution restored now, it also cannot bring itself to support the Windsor Framework, acknowledging that there are still outstanding issues to be resolved. The UUP is sometimes seen to be socially liberal but in reality, the party is similar to the DUP in that they both have socially liberal elected representatives and socially conservative elected representatives. The two parties also broadly share the same views on economic and cultural issues.

Furthermore, the DUP has elected representation in the Commons. The UUP does not. So it has more visibility and political influence. Election results are also showing that voters are gradually consolidating around one unionist party, one nationalist party and one Other party. This three-party trend will make it difficult for the DUP’s rivals to operate in.

The TUV in particular had an impressive vote in the 2022 Assembly election but this did not translate into gains and their momentum was largely lost as a result in the 2023 local elections. Political research shows voters tend to vote for parties that they believe will win and therefore, that’s why I believe the DUP maintains its support as unionist voters have confidence that the DUP has the best chance of winning.

Although the DUP will have historic decisions to make, it is likely to maintain its support as unlike the Belfast Agreement days, there is no real ideological difference within unionism at this time. The Windsor Framework is also complex and technical, while the Belfast Agreement was easily understood.

The DUP Leader’s Speech

It will be interesting to hear the DUP Leader’s speech. He tends to use the same words and phrases such as “progress”, “solid foundations” and “fair and sustainable” to maintain a consistent message. He avoids dramatic language to allow room to operate in. My guess is it will be a safe, carefully-worded and confident speech. He will want to rally support and focus on issues that all of unionism agrees on. It won’t be long until we find out what the DUP Leader will say and where he wants to lead unionism.

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