It could be argued that the rise of the TUV has inadvertently helped the UUP because they are taking votes from the DUP. This has lessened the DUP’s dominance of unionism. It was formed by Jim Allister – an ex DUP MEP. Allister has formed the party to oppose Unionist compromises since the GFA. His party has had wide media coverage and has threatened to shred the unionist vote even further – challenging the DUP in its heartlands. In reality however the TUV has in fact polled badly in the recent 2011 Assembly election and many considered it a spent force. However, Allister is proving a very capable politician in the Assembly.
He is the MLA who has asked the most questions and he has proved highly effective in holding parties and ministers to account. He has frequently talked about other parties forming an opposition to make the Assembly more accountable. He has also relentlessly pursued DUP scandals to the limit – causing Sammy Wilson to create an outburst at a committee meeting. The unionist vote is being spread thinly by the amount of unionist parties – TUV, UUP, NI21, PUP and so forth. This is a threat to the DUP’s dominance. Furthermore, the DUP’s dominance of unionism has been challenged by various scandals, mainly centering around Peter Robinson.
Iris Robinson was embroiled in a sensational tabloid scandal which rocked the party and damaged the vote in 2010 – It seems to have come back from this stronger however. Peter Robinson was also deeply and dangerously entwined in serious anti Islamic comments in support of a North Belfast pastor when leader of the party and First Minister. Peter Robinson has also been accused of financial wrong doing regarding the NAMA loans. Critics accused him of helping work a property deal with the Republic’s bad loan agency, selling a ?1 billion property portfolio to an American company and netting a few million pounds in the process.
Robinson has strenuously denied this. It may have been the last straw in his decision to leave however. In the end Robinson stepped down due to these scandals and personal health issues. The Party recently made what many consider a major mistake when it pulled (all but 1 minister) out of the NI Executive over allegations of IRA involvement in the murder of Kevin McGuigan. They were wrong footed by the UUP, who initially took the decision to pull out. However, this quickly turned into a messy PR disaster!. They had to constantly revolve ministers.
Pulling all their ministers out would mean a certain election, which many believed they would do badly in. The pulling out of ministers combined with the political crisis with the Assembly played out badly in the press. The DUP were criticised over terrible stories surrounding the Health service and waiting lists; the closure of major industrial plants such as Michelin and a host of other stories. In the end the DUP almost jumped at the decision to get back into government based on a very flimsy report that the IRA leadership did indeed still exist.
Finally, there is a key danger for the DUP that the longer they are in power the more apathetic Unionist voters will become. The fact they have become part of the political elite challenges their past strengths in ways. They were formed as a party of opposition and may have assumed the mantle of power a little too easily. The young in particular may be disengaged from the party’s politics. Voter turnout in some constituencies is below 20% in key demographics. 43% of all voters did not vote in the last Assembly election. Polls indicate widespread public disaffection with the Executive and the Assembly.