Sam McBride: DUP is now choosing its words very carefully

Arlene Foster
Arlene Foster

Implicit in everything it did yesterday was the message that the DUP has learnt major lessons from its disastrous Assembly election campaign in February and March.

There was no explicit admission of past mistakes or a public mea culpa for March’s failures.

But the event was suffused with the sense that the party is attempting to change its image, tone and – perhaps – some of its policies.

In a critical change from three months ago, the DUP is now considering not just how its messages are received by its own supporters – but by nationalists.

Strikingly, Sunday’s joint DUP-UUP statement about their talks exploring the possibility of unionist pact framed what had been agreed – a decision to stand aside in favour of the other in North Belfast and Fermanagh-South Tyrone – as a series of “unilateral” decisions, rather than a limited pact in those seats.

That is an unmistakable departure from the past language of unionism when any unionist unity was trumpeted as cause for celebration.

But, in a situation where one word – crocodile – was judged to have driven hordes of voters to Sinn Fein, the DUP now appears to be considering the impact of its language on those who would never vote for DUP candidates.

The DUP has also been forced to adopt a new strategy due to the overwhelming strength of the Conservatives in the opinion polls.

During the 2010 and 2015 general elections, the DUP sold itself as the potential king-makers in a hung Parliament – with the suggestion being that it would likely be a financial benefit of some sort for the Province.

Although the DUP never found itself quite in that position, the arithmetic in the last Parliament gave the party a degree of clout disproportionate to its size as the Tories courted the party ahead of tight votes.

Mrs Foster herself all but conceded yesterday that the DUP will not be in that position after June 8, saying: “On this occasion it does not appear likely that our votes will be required to help form a government at Westminster”.

The DUP leader went on to argue that nevertheless the party needs “a mandate for unionism” and a mandate to restore devolved government at Stormont.

On paper, this ought to be a good election for the DUP.

Six of the party’s eight seats are all but guaranteed. In the remaining two – Upper Bann and East Belfast – the party is the strong favourite, and it has the possibility of taking South Antrim off the UUP.

Mrs Foster sent out a very clear message yesterday that her party wants a deal to restore Stormont.

But what is far from clear is whether Sinn Fein – now with significant focus on Dublin politics and reportedly considering a leadership transition later this year – feels anything like that urgency.