DUP Conference Preview – moving forward or staying in the same place?

cropped DUP logoSince their last party conference, the DUP has had a roller-coaster of a year. In the first few months of 2010 it looked like they’d been turned upside down and had any loose change shaken out of their pockets as scandal-ridden Iris Robinson abruptly retired from public life, Peter Robinson temporarily stepped back from office, land deals lingered in the headlines, mud was thrown at high profile MPs, and the party suffered the loss of their East Belfast seat at Westminster, and failed to win back Fermanagh and South Tyrone by a handful of votes.

And yet maybe it amounted to the shake the DUP needed. While the conference venue hasn’t moved out of its East Belfast location, the DUP are keen to campaign under the strapline of “moving forward”. As a party – and in particular its leader – they seem to be exuding an inner confidence during the last few months. They’re less defensive, slightly less alarmist, less wound up by Jim Allister and the TUV, less in the news because of Ian Paisley Junior, and a lot more comfortable being seen to work with Sinn Fein.

It was a good year for Arlene Foster, who unexpectedly burst through the glass ceiling and became the first female, Anglican First Minster. Some of their younger (ie, middle-aged) talent in the Assembly are maturing, with performances during debates marked by deftly carried wit rather than sniping ridicule. Gone are the grumpy old men who used to lead the Executive: instead the body language between FM and dFM has noticeably relaxed.

Of course, I’m not entirely taken in by all the gloss and still see plenty of evidence of procrastination by OFMdFM in decision-making, appointments and strategies that are long overdue.

Like all party conferences so far this season, the agenda for this weekend’s DUP conference is dominated by the 3 golden Es: election, education and economy.

On Friday morning delegates can take advantage of some communications and media skills training. Look out for the effects of that when you doorbell goes in April or May.

Nelson McCausland is chairing a session at Friday teatime looking at Why Unionists Ignore Culture at their Peril. I’m intrigued to discover how widely “culture” and “peril” will be defined, and how the average DUP member’s natural conservativism will play in the debate.

The tricky subjects of reforming government and financing public services and education will be held on Saturday morning in the run up to (and provide sound bites for) the BBC’s live broadcast from La Mon House Hotel at 11.45am. There are also fifteen minute slots for Sammy Wilson, Nigel Dodds and Arlene Foster to address conference delegates.

Peter Robinson is due on stage at noon for his leader’s address. Let’s hope that the media savvy DUP don’t follow the SDLP’s example and start early, missing the broadcast slot.

This will also be the moment when some people will strain their ears to hear the results of DUP HQ head scratching as they have tried to figure out what music Peter should walk in to on Saturday. With the Irish economy – or what’s left of it – dominating the news, conference organisers are apparently looking for something “sober, yet upbeat”. Even at this late stage they may value your suggestions in the comments below!

After lunch four parallel workshops will be vying with the bar (sorry, forgot, it’s not the SDLP conference!) for the attention of delegates:

  • First Six Months at Westminster
  • Young Political Leadership
  • Blogging for Unionism
  • Women’s Participation in a Modern Political Party (a closed/delegates-only session)

Something for everyone? Maybe the bar will be doing good trade after all!

The panels at the SDLP conference seemed to deliberately include unexpected voices with a diversity of opinion and challenge built in. The external panellists booked for the DUP conference feel a bit safer and less likely to surprise. But maybe Brooklands Primary School Principal David McCartney will break the conversation away from the inevitable Minister Ruane-knocking and shine a light onto other educational inadequacies and areas for reform.

The conference is due to finish with the traditional witty wrap up by William McCrea, leaving the sharpest humour to the end.

Last year the DUP’s pilgrimage to La Mon Hotel was the only main party conference I missed, so I’m not quite sure what to expect. My instinct tells me a safe bet might be the traditional stereotypes of red, white, blue, men wearing ties, religious overtones and metaphor, along with lack of public dissent from loyal party delegates. Will I be proved wrong?

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.