The clerical roots of the Democratic Unionist Party

ON THE face of things, the two parts of Ireland have never looked more different. As noted in a previous Erasmus posting, the Irish republic will soon have a young, half-Indian prime minister (taoiseach) who is openly gay. In Northern Ireland, meanwhile, yesterday’s British election has given a pivotal role to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a “theocon” grouping whose ideas are unusual in today’s western Europe. To an American, especially from the deep South, the party would seem much more familiar.

The DUP is a movement rooted in conservative and ultra-conservative forms of Christianity. It successfully hauls in votes from that section of society without completely alienating the more secular parts of its natural electoral base, which consists of pro-British voters in Northern Ireland. You might call it a mixture of old-time religion and secular nativism.

The party’s late founder, the Reverend Ian Paisley, was a hardliner in both politics and theology. His fiery rhetoric denounced the mainstream Unionist Party, which dominated Northern Irish politics for half a century, as too prone to compromise with the province’s Catholic minority. He also excoriated the mainstream Protestant churches as insufficiently zealous in their defence of Reformation theology from the errors of Papism. For decades, he combined the roles of DUP leader and prime mover of the Free Presbyterian church, which he also founded.

Although Paisley (later Lord Bannside) was squeezed out of his party and his church in the final years of his life, his successors managed to keep the links between politics and hardline theology broadly intact, albeit somewhat looser.

According to Jonathan Tonge, a professor at Liverpool University who studies the DUP, the movement’s clerical associations remain significant but are slowly diminishing. A majority of party members are weekly churchgoers who consider themselves very religious. About half belong to the Orange Order, a fraternity whose declared aims include the defence of the Protestant creed. A third are members of the Free Presbyterian church.

The party’s position on ethical and reproductive questions is correspondingly conservative. It opposes gay marriage and has helped to ensure that Northern Ireland is the only part of the British Isles where same-sex unions have no legal standing. It opposes the relaxation of Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws. Some of its leading members are creationists who reject Darwin’s account of the evolution of human life.

As participants in the power-sharing administration in Belfast which collapsed six months ago, DUP cabinet ministers lent a sympathetic ear to the Caleb Foundation, a creationist lobby group which believes that museums should present visitors with the “young Earth” theory of the planet’s origins.

The DUP also subscribes to a version of climate-change scepticism which echoes voices on America’s religious right. Ironically, the catalyst for the downfall of the Northern Irish power-sharing arrangement was a botched green-energy project which occurred on the watch of Arlene Foster, the DUP first minister.

Still, not all pro-British voters in Northern Ireland are fundamentalist Christians. In urban Protestant heartlands such as East Belfast, zealous forms of religion are the exception, not the rule. Even among devout citizens, there is some diversity. Apart from the Free Presbyterian church, many prominent DUP members have links with Pentecostal churches, and some are Anglicans. So as Mr Tonge points out, the DUP has needed to move skilfully to shore up its support among pious voters without alienating more secular ones.

And as a political machine, it has proved ruthlessly effective. As Mr Tonge points out, the Orange Order shifted its backing to the DUP when mainstream Unionists “sold out” by accepting the principle of power-sharing with Catholic nationalists. But when the DUP in turn accepted that principle, it still managed to keep the Order’s support.

What unites many voters of Protestant heritage, whether religious or not, is a feeling that the tide of history has, in some mysterious and unfair way, turned against them. They feel that the outside world has little understanding of their community’s suffering during the 25 years of violence which ended—more or less—in 1994; and little gratitude for the role played by the region’s loyal citizens during two world wars. The DUP speaks to the fears and aspirations of those voters—sometimes in subliminally religious language and sometimes in more secular tones.