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'I'm not backwards': How the DUP hopes to inspire a new generation of unionists

The party has traditionally struggled to appeal to young voters.

Arlene Foster, Jeffery Donaldson and Emma Little Pengelly pose for a selfie during the DUP party conference.
Arlene Foster, Jeffery Donaldson and Emma Little Pengelly pose for a selfie during the DUP party conference.
Image: Michael Cooper/PA Wire/PA Images

WITH A GENERAL election only weeks away, the DUP has a new message for voters.

Trialled heavily last week at the party’s annual conference in Belfast, the DUP is pitching itself as a platform for all shades of unionism. As leader Arlene Foster wrote in the Belfast Telegraph on Friday: “We’re arguing that unionists come in all shapes and sizes, and that all should be embraced.”

This “next generation unionism” is something of a sea change for a party not known for self-reflection. But it also suggests a canny attempt to inspire younger unionists to back the DUP. 

New MPs

The popular conception of the last few years is that young voters, dejected by the deadlock in Stormont, have rejected both Sinn Féin and the DUP and backed the Alliance Party. 

Certainly, the DUP is not a party that ever seems to have troubled itself before with young voters.

Socially conservative, rigidly controlled and largely patriarchal, the sight of only a handful of young faces at the conference last weekend is a poor omen for a party facing the prospect of hours of canvassing and campaigning before 12 December. 

And while the election of the party’s first openly gay politician in May 2019 attracted attention, it also showed a divide between two generations in the party. 

The party’s youngest MP, Gavin Robinson, welcomed the election of Alison Bennington in the local elections. “We’re not a theocracy, we’re a political party,” he said. 

Yet party veteran Jim Wells, an opponent of same-sex marriage, said members felt let down by the decision. 

It might have been the sea of older faces at last week’s conference that prompted a surprising rebuff from one of the party’s youngest MPs, Emma Little Pengelly, when she addressed the conference on Saturday morning. 

“Perhaps, too often, we play into our enemies’ hands,” she said. “I know that we are not a party of hate, or bigotry, or backwardness. I know we are a party of passion and compassion.”

Little Pengelly is under serious pressure to retain her seat in Belfast South, with challengers from both the SDLP and the Alliance also pitching themselves as young, modern – and crucially, opposed to Brexit. 

It’s a constituency that might be something of a microcosm for the DUP’s image problem in the North – in a bid to build a firm base in unionism, it’s been too easy for the party to alienate more moderate voters. 

Little Pengelly, speaking to TheJournal.ie, emphasised the “broad” values of the union with the UK. 

The DUP, she says, is not “two-dimensional”. 

“I do not believe that I in any way am backwards. I’m certainly not somebody who is small-minded,” she says.

general-election-2017-declaration Nigel Dodds alongside Emma Little Pengelly and Gavin Robinson, two of the party's youngest MPs. Source: Niall Carson/PA Archive/PA Images

“I certainly do not feel I am somebody who is in any way bigoted. I feel I am someone who genuinely enjoys new experiences.”

Like many DUP members, there is a resentment at the criticism targeted at the DUP. “I think we need to take that on, we need to challenge it,” says Little-Pengelly. 

Grassroots

This image, however, is unlikely to be countered by party speeches or newspaper columns. 

So far, the party seems to have put little energy – whether through policy or social media platforms – into getting their ideas into the heads and hands of young voters. 

The DUP Instagram page, for instance, has only 704 followers – for comparison, Sinn Féin’s Instagram page has over 17,000 followers. 

Speaking to younger DUP members, they acknowledge that there is a perception problem. But many lay the blame elsewhere, not at the feet of the party leadership.

Molly Liggett, a second-year student and Chair of the Queen’s University Belfast Democratic Unionist Association, admits that some young people may not like the party, which recently led a failed gathering in the Northern Ireland Assembly to oppose the decriminalisation of abortion.

“It doesn’t help that the media isn’t on our side, I suppose. So it is painted as a bigoted party, but it’s just not the case at all. There are so many young people, from so many different backgrounds,” she says. 

Indeed, Liggett insists that the party is making an effort. ”Our Democratic Unionist Association has one of the largest sign-ups this year, so we are growing in numbers. Young people do care about the DUP and I don’t think it’s spoken about enough. And it’s very frustrating, because I know as a young person there are so many people on campus that agree with us,” she said. 

Ross McVittee, another young unionist, backs the message of ‘next generation unionism’. 

“We need to promote not just the party, but we need to promote the union as well. As a union for everyone, not just for us,” he says. 

But he denies that the party has a problem attracting younger voters. “The same could be said of the Tories in the mainland,” he says. 

“We just need to be smart,” he adds. 

With an election in a few weeks time, the message from the DUP seems to be fine-tuned – now it remains to be seen if the deliver will work. 

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