Analysis: Why the DUP’s origins in the Troubles and religious fundamentalism still matter


The Tory party is arranging a deal with the hard-right DUP which will give it significant power

TALKS ARE UNDER WAY to put together a deal between the Conservative party and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), after the Tories failed to gain enough seats to form a majority in the General Election.

Many commentators have described the DUP as a ‘socially Conservative and unionist party’. Both these points are clearly true. But there is more to the DUP, a force that emerged from brutal conflict during the troubles.

CommonSpace looks at the background and ideology of the DUP.

Role in the Troubles

The Northern Ireland state was organised along sectarian lines in 1920-21 following the Irish Revolution. It privileged its British-identifying Protestant majority at the expense of its Irish-identifying Catholic minority.

In the late 1960s the Irish Catholic minority rose-up for equal rights.

The governing unionist party responded by mixing repression with offers of limited concessions.

As violence escalated, a revivalist preacher, Reverand Ian Paisley, became a leading critic of mainstream Unionism.

He launched a more hardline and reactionary unionist party, the DUP, in 1971. It was mainly staffed by members of his breakaway fundamentalist religious group, the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster.

The party rose with the decline of mainstream unionism, and was embroiled in the emergence of loyalist paramilitarism. The DUP helped to establish the Ulster Resistance paramilitary movement in 1986, which worked with established terror groups to acquire arms.

Religious Fundamentalism                        

The DUP is only partly the product of British Nationalism and political loyalism. Its world view is deeply impacted by religious thought.

For Paisley, the Plantation of Ulster in the 1600s, which saw English and Scottish Protestant farmers colonise parts of the North West, was an important part of God’s plan for the world – and for the end of the world.

Liberalism made a major impact on Protestantism, and other religions and denominations, throughout the twentieth century.

Paisley thought this “apostasy” was part of the end of the world, foretold in the book of Revelations in the Bible. He resisted liberalism – insisting on a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. He especially resisted ecumenism, the movement towards reconciliation between the world’s Christian denominations. ‘Protestant Ulster’ would hold out against the tide.

A paranoid world view

He believed these developments were part of a global conspiracy, conducted by the Catholic Church and the Pope, who he believed was the anti-Christ foretold in Revelations. He believed that the Irish Catholic community’s demands for reform of the sectarian state were stimulated by the conspiracy, as were the republican movement and mainstream unionism.

The EU was also part of this “Romanism”, and he resisted it all his life. In 1988 he heckled Pope John Paul II at the European Parliament and held a poster claiming he was the ‘anti-Christ’.

These eccentric views are not incidental to the DUP, and its rise and success during the Troubles. It’s religious fervour reinforced the DUP against any temptation to compromise with the Irish Catholic community or the British state to bring the conflict to an end.

Though the DUP would eventually involve itself with the peace process and go into power sharing under the Good Friday Agreement, it only did so after the violent stalemate reached by the Troubles, and after many other factions had already begun to wind down the fight.

The impact of DUP Policies and stances

The DUP’s religious fundamentalism and loyalism shaped many of the policies it still holds.

It maintains its right-wing views on important areas of social policy. Equal marriage and abortion rights are opposed, and as a result Northern Ireland still has neither. Many women in Northern Ireland are forced to travel in order to access abortion, or use unsafe methods to terminate pregnancy.

The DUP’s paranoid world view still holds sway. Climate change denial, a view rife among conspiracy theorists who believe it is a secret plan for evil purposes, has adherents within the party – including its former environment minister.

Many party members hold other anti-science positons, such as that the world was created in seven days a few thousand years ago.

The DUP still opposes the EU and supports Brexit, though as part of its more pragmatic direction, it wants to maintain a soft border with the Republic of Ireland, as many of its voters are farmers whose business would be damaged by restriction on trade.

Above all else, the DUP is still utterly opposed to a united Ireland, and is determined to keep Northern Ireland in the UK.

The DUP and the future of Unionism

The DUP has changed with the peace process. It no longer openly supports paramilitary activity. Its leaders and activists are no longer members of the same tiny church.

But the influence of its founding character remains. And so does its fundamental purpose, to defend the Union and keep Northern Ireland in it.

If the DUP enters government, one of the pillars of the peace agreement will be undermined. The Northern Ireland Assembly, paralysed by crisis, could feasibly give way to direct rule by a UK Government where the deciding stake is held by the DUP. The consequences of this could prove extremely serious.

The party’s profile as a major protagonist in the Troubles, whose leaders were virulently anti-Catholic and against compromise, has the potential to substantially raise tensions in Northern Ireland.

It would also represent the apex of the democratic deficit across the crisis afflicted UK, with perhaps the country’s most unrepresentative elected party wielding unprecedented power.

Picture courtesy of Youtube/Channel 4 News/DUP Photos/James Cullen

Check out what people are saying about how important CommonSpace is: Pledge your support today.