Gary Kent reports on the DUP charm offensive at the Labour Party conference
Swigging bubbly with Dr Ian Paisley was a jaw-dropping first for many astonished delegates at the Labour Party conference in Manchester this week. But a Federation of Small Businesses champagne reception was where the DUP’s charm offensive began. And this time the emphasis was on the charm rather than the offensive. Dr Paisley and his son stuck to water and later stuck to their guns but wanted to win friends and influence people.
I asked the Big Man why he had come to Manchester – incidentally the gay capital of Britain.
He said that it was “always good to talk” and he wanted to prove that “we don’t have horns.”
The DUP has developed a taste for bold strokes that surprise and are therefore more striking.
This is the DUP’s Martini Strategy. Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere.
Earlier this year a senior DUP delegation went south to talk to Irish and British parliamentarians in Killarney.
It was led by Deputy Leader Peter Robinson who was once jailed on a trip south.
The Killarney trip went so much against type that it won massive coverage.
The DUP then asked if they could attend the Labour Party conference.
A breakfast fringe meeting at the Prime Minister’s hotel was hastily arranged.
Peter Hain and his ministerial team as well as senior MPs and journalists turned up before 8am.
The Fookin Noodle Bar in Belfast sponsored the croissants and orange juice. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
Paisley was in humorous form. He paraded his orange pass for the cameras but said that he was “flying under false colours” as it wrongly described him as an Ulster Unionist.
He joked he was once a member but “I saw the light.”
He said he preferred self-government rather than having “visitors” running the show.
And he added to laughter, “I suppose there’s a streak of nationalism in all of us.”
The Catholic Labour MP Steve Pound then addressed him as “my fellow nationalist.”
Peter Hain who is Welsh Secretary quipped that Paisley had been “greatly civilised by his preaching in the Welsh valleys.”
But laughter aside, Paisley’s key message was polite but firm.
He told Hain directly that “Ulstermen cannot be bullied by threats from any politician. They just become more obstinate.”
The DUP say that they are not moved by the fear of losing salaries and allowances if Stormont is shut down.
Ian Junior told me that the party understood that “Big Boys’ Rules” meant taking risks.
His father wasn’t happy that “the curtains would come down on 24th November.”
He added “People don’t believe the deadline. I’m not sure if I could read the heart of the Secretary of State that he believes it either.”
With just weeks to go before that deadline neither Paisley nor Hain was going to give their hand away.
But Dr Paisley told me afterwards that “it had laid to rest the idea that the DUP is mad and that I’m a scamp.”
Big Ian then went to hear a moving speech to the conference itself from Betty Orr the Head teacher of Edenbrooke primary school in the Shankill.
The symbolism was unmistakeable. The DUP set out to prove it didn’t have horns. Labour showed that it didn’t either.
All this illustrates how discussion at Labour’s conference on Northern Ireland has changed profoundly over the 25 years I have been going.
The debate in the early years was often one sided and dominated by calls for troops out now and withdrawal.
Sinn Fein and its supporters were the loudest voices.
But then others started to come.
The Workers’ Party put on social nights for very many years. It was all good craic with flutes, booze and solidarity with striking miners.
Those who felt that being left-wing meant backing the Provos started to see things differently.
But unionists were thin on the ground until David Trimble broke the mould by attending conference for the first time ten years ago to address a peace group in which I was active.
It took a long time for Paisley to follow suit.
And Labour has changed in that time. The annual “Ulster Fry” breakfast brings together all parts of the province.
Labour used to return membership applications from anyone in Northern Ireland. Thanks but no thanks.
Now people can join. A deal has also just been struck to allow members to organise but not fight elections.
Northern Ireland has become a more mainstream issue in mainland politics.
Even if what Peter Hain called “the endless merry-go-round” of Ulster’s “groundhog day” washes over most people.
The Paisley trip to Manchester was a high profile gesture. The DUP and Labour are listening to each other. Whether this heralds success by 24th November is a different question.
Gary Kent is a graduate of international relations. After spells in management in British Rail and the Co-Op he began work in parliament in 1987 where he was active for two decades on Anglo-Irish peace activity against terrorism and now as secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, which he has visited 27 times since 2006. He used to be a columnist for Fortnight Magazine and writes a regular column for the Kurdish Rudaw outlet and many other publications.