Senior Account Executive Jack Gibson gives his analysis of the state of the DUP on the eve of the party’s campaign launch
For those looking at the General Election here and in England and Wales, there’s a sense of déjà vu around today’s DUP general election campaign launch.
The party are launching their campaign in the plush surroundings of the Castlereagh Hills Golf Club outside Belfast. There, party leader Arlene Foster is likely to repeat the calls, made in a speech in Derry~Londonderry on Friday, for a “strong unionist voice” to bring “stability”.
In all, Mrs Foster used the word “strong”, and conjugations of “stable”, 5 times each. Was she perhaps taking a leaf out of Theresa May’s messaging booklet?!
In fairness, the DUP has long made use of words like “strong” and “stable” – language aimed at people who feel safe within the status quo.
The party is working hard to fight back, after Sinn Féin put in a startlingly strong performance in March’s Assembly election. It remains to be seen whether the republican party’s resurgence will galvanise support for the DUP.
However, the party has suffered some setbacks.
Though unofficial pacts are in place in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and North Belfast, efforts to put wider pacts in place appear to have fallen through. This means the ‘unionist’ vote will be divided in constituencies such as East and South Belfast, where tough battles are anticipated.
The party has also lost one of its key negotiators and strategic thinkers. Richard Bullick, the long-serving DUP SpAd, left his party role last week for a job with a Belfast PR agency.
It may be that Bullick can be considered a casualty of the collapse of the Executive, which has left him without his SpAd salary since January.
From a messaging point of view, the party’s biggest problem may simply be that the controversy around the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, and the subsequent inability to form an Executive, has damaged its reputation for stability and professionalism.
The party continues to argue that the blame for the continuing political instability in Northern Ireland rests firmly with Sinn Féin. However, it remains to be seen whether this approach will resonate with unionist voters.
Whatever campaign approach the DUP takes, what seems certain is that it faces more of a struggle than it faced in 2015. Unionist disunity [ed – pardon?] and a sense of enduring damage from the failure to form an Executive mean that high profile outgoing MPs like Gavin Robinson must be feeling the pressure.
However, the fact remains that, as NI’s largest party, the DUP is well-equipped to ‘come out swinging’ in the 2017 campaign. It’ll be fascinating to see how it goes about it.
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