Unionism is a meritorious cause which is lent to whichever political outlet commands the greatest electoral support. It is therefore alarming that the DUP leadership contest has all the hallmarks of resulting in a split which could dramatically provoke a rush to form a new party.
The DUP brand took decades to perfect and become acceptable to widespread unionism. It is a coveted prized asset. A wrecking exercise by a splinter group will turn the brand stale and push the DUP past its sell by date. This leadership contest has press ganged the DUP into untried and untested territory from which it might not recover quickly if ever.
If the new leader is unable to command the complete confidence of its representative electoral college it will be curtains for the party. A damaged, divided DUP cannot win elections if it operates at less than 100% performance capability. Failure to attain approval ratings and sustain support at the election polls will result in handing over the First Minister’s Office to Sinn Fein. There are no ifs or buts on the issue.
It is not beyond the realms of possibility that those unable to accept the choice of a new leader will break away. After all detachment from mainstream unionism was the original building blocks which formed the DUP. Whether it happens and a new party takes off or prominent people throw their lot in with the TUV or UUP is anybody’s guess, but they owe it to unionism to think before they jump. Right now the last thing unionism needs is a broken DUP and another unionist party. We do not deserve to see the cause we serve weakened and trashed as a result of the DUP being unable to manage their inter-party affairs. We need and are entitled to strong, united, trustworthy, coherent, astute and practical leadership and we need it swiftly stimulated across unionism.
It is a tall order to deliver because the deep chasm of identity is casting dark shadows over the future of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement. It is necessitating a rethink to establish for unionists an identity for nationalists which compliments the virtues of a shared future. It is not about redressing unionism or getting into talks on a new Ireland.
The urgency centres on rescoping the Agreement’s ‘consent principles,’ plus renegotiating the rules of engagement for power-sharing. To that end the next DUP leader, provided he emerges unscathed from the leadership contest, must unite unionism.
In order to satisfy a currently disillusioned unionist population the new leader must demonstrate his ability to formulate a dynamic strategy encapsulating exciting policy proposals.
The new leader does not need to prove that the Prime Minister is untrustworthy but the onus is on the chosen one to square the duplicitous Boris circle. Downing Street is well aware of the open challenge thrown down to all unionist leaders. It is remove the N.I. Protocol and bring an abrupt halt to the machinations of the unworkable Sinn Fein agenda wrecking progress in the Executive.
Arlene Foster’s successor does not need to be reminded that this current political chapter has gone beyond ‘fix it or finish it’ ultimata. The stark choices for him are stay in an Executive ‘administering’ the protocol and be rejected at the polls, or refuse to appoint a new First Minister and stand down all other DUP ministers from the Executive. This may be a necessary game changer.