The Democratic Unionist Party has a lot to worry about in this election. Traditional Unionist Voice’s Jim Allister has been smelling blood ever since the DUP’s compromise with Sinn Fein. Especially in the conservative heartlands, the TUV cause may get a boost from the Iris Robinson scandal and suspicions over Peter Robinson’s dodgy property deals.
The DUP’s broadcast for the 2010 General Election aired last night. It’s an interesting piece of theatre (watch here). The party is, of course, trying to hammer home the message that it has tagged to its election manifesto: ‘Let’s Keep Northern Ireland Moving Forward!’
Funny enough, though, the broadcast opened by harking backwards to unionism’s glory days. Nigel Dodds stands reflectively on the grass in front of Belfast city hall, his gaze alternating between the building and a black and white photograph of old Belfast.
The voiceover tells the story of unionists’ forefathers fighting for Northern Ireland’s right to exist. It says that those forefathers made Northern Ireland into an ‘economic powerhouse’ and an ‘engine of innovation.’ It shows footage of the shipyards and the planes that won World War II.
Then, without any mention of why this idyllic and innovative province might have any problems, the broadcast proclaims: ‘but then, everything changed.’
Cut to footage of burning buildings and urban warfare.
I understand that a party political broadcast lasting less than five minutes isn’t the place to start a discussion about the complex origins of Northern Ireland’s Troubles.
But the opening scenes of this broadcast, and the story it tells, blithely perpetuates a myth that some unionists tell about the origins of the Troubles. In its strongest form, that myth says that there was no discrimination in Northern Ireland before the Troubles, and that every form of protest against discrimination and inequality – from the civil rights marches to the IRA’s campaign – just wasn’t justified.
In fact, that’s the myth that makes the DUP’s compromise with Sinn Fein all the more unpalatable to those who believe it.
I suspect the DUP has decided it must draw on this image of the past to shore up its tough unionist credentials and stave off the challenge from the TUV.
Perhaps that is necessary in the context of party competition, but I am less certain that it’s a constructive way to deal with the past or, indeed, to ‘keep moving forward.’
Completing the Journey with the DUP?
The DUP did devote most of the broadcast to outlining the benefits of devolution, justifying its decision to go into government with Sinn Fein, and trying to convince unionists to, as party leader Peter Robinson says, ‘complete the journey with us.’
Robinson says this near the end of the broadcast, when he is seen exhorting a group of (mostly young) supporters.
This segment is striking for the way that it tries to present a kinder, gentler Robinson. He is dressed casually, without a suit or tie, standing on a small stage without a podium.
A great deal of effort was invested in making Robinson appear inspiring – the spectators almost obsessively bob their heads in agreement and one young woman has tears in her eyes.
It’s a far cry from the Rev. Ian Paisley using his oratory skills to spontaneously inspire a huge crowd off the cuff.
So the question remains: Is Robinson’s presentation of the future compelling enough to take unionists’ eyes off the past?
(Photo of launch of DUP election manifesto sourced on flickr, DUP photos)