Hamill’s Beat - The DUP is a populist party with contradictions

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Politics can be a rich source of irony. For instance, Catriona Ruane accused the DUP’s Jim Wells of being a misogynist. Wells had been accused of breaking the Stormont code of conduct in an angry finger-wagging outburst at Sinn Féin culture minister Caral ni Chuilin and her former advisor Marie McCardle.

The former education minister mentioned the word “misogyny” a couple of times. Her use of “big words,” attracted some criticism so Ms Ruane felt the need to explain. “It means hatred of women and girls,” she told the assembly. Aren’t we always told we have the best schools in the world? Isn’t it revealing then, what our elected representatives call “big words”?

Anyway, a few days later, DUP finance minister and stand-up comedian Sammy Wilson unintentionally confirmed the misogynistic attitudes. “The other two Sinn Féin ministers are two women. I can’t remember their names but their sister’s called Cinderella,” he quipped at his party’s conference. Isn’t there an extra element of irony in a politician telling politically incorrect jokes?

The DUP is nothing if not schizophrenic. Peter Robinson wants his party to appeal to a wider ‘constituency’. “If that means taking tough decisions, or abandoning out-dated dogmas, then I’ll do it,” he says. Abandoning “out-dated dogmas” is one thing but, it seems, abandoning out-dated sexism is too much to expect. Strange then that he says he wants, “a society where everyone feels equally valued”. Does, “everyone” exclude women if Sammy thinks they’re not attractive enough to go to the ball?

Still, the most remarkable thing about the recent DUP conference was how much favourable comment it attracted. Seasoned observers noted how much the party had changed. For instance, the conference dinner was co-sponsored by the pubs of Ulster. That may have had, “a few of the temperance brigade running for the buttermilk on the way home,” said Tom Kelly in the Irish News. Entertainment at the dinner was provided by classical pianist Barry Douglas and by his orchestra, Camerata Ireland. Hmmm, now there’s a change! In the old days they’d have gone for hot gospel songs from Willie McCrea and tunes from the local flute band. They would have been more popular with the party’s country and western wing than Barry Douglas. You’re probably, like me, wondering if the MP for Coleraine and Limavady enjoyed it.

The old DUP dominated by its links with the fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church is trying to be more sophisticated. Whether or not they ever attract the support of more than a handful of Catholics must be extremely unlikely but they have already more or less gobbled up the Ulster Unionist Party.

The DUP has turned itself into the North’s answer to Fianna Fáil. Like the populist southern party they have steered clear of right versus left issues. They would only be important in a more normal society. What matters to the DUP and to Fianna Fáil is the all-important national question, even though Bertie Ahern did once famously claim to be “a socialist”. You’ll notice that there was barely a word about welfare “reform” or welfare cuts at the DUP conference.

It seems to me that Sinn Féin is missing a trick by not moving further onto Fianna Fáil’s ground. The Shinners should steal their clothes, so to speak. Normal right versus left politics have never caught on in Ireland. There’s no point in scaring voters by being too radical or leftist.

The thing to do is to build a broad consensus around the all-important national issue. Everything else can be dealt with on a more pragmatic basis. So, just follow the example of Éamon De Valera’s and Ian Paisley’s successors. (Of course we know that Fianna Fáil has stumbled a bit recently although they’re showing signs of getting underway again. Meanwhile, the DUP marches on – despite the best efforts of the Parades’ Commission.)