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?

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  • Granni Trixie

    Why is the wimmin in politics session “closed” – afraid of what might come out in the wash? |(having said that, very happy to see this topic on their agenda,UUP take note).

  • joeCanuck

    Maybe Mr. Robinson will take the opportunity to release the publicly paid for report absolving him from doing anything wrong. We’ve been waiting about a year for the promised release.

  • Comrade Stalin

    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.

    Ride of the Valkyries ?

    Seriously though, best of luck to DUP’ers with their conference, I am sure it will go well.

  • Delta Omega

    Moving forward or staying in the same place? At least you recognise that they can go any further back on the promises they made to the Uionist electorate at the last assembly election.

  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit

    Alan,

    “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”

    Do you wear a SluggerOToole bib at these events?

    Do you think the DUP see Slugger as a Republican talking shop or as a broadly balanced debating forum?

  • Laughing (Tory) Unionist

    At a guess, ‘the DUP’ see Slugger the way most people do: a collection of wasters, spoofers and sadsacks, far better employed ranting at their keyboards than running around in public with scissors and right-angled pieces of paper.

  • Did you not hear that Mick was getting special red suits made up like the Slugger logo? Washable in case any eggs or brickbats get thrown!

  • LTU – I couldn’t comment on your 32 comments in the last 2 days!

    But seriously, I’m sure they use it and judge it as they do any number of public forums, papers, media outlets, events and conversations. It’s a set of conversations initiated by and then commented upon by a particular set of people. So they’ll like some of it, get steamed up by other bit, laugh off some, and take the odd nugget to heart.

    But politically, it’s still usually better to be talked about than ignored.

  • On the leader’s speech music front, a colleague suggests

    Paul Simon – Still crazy after all these years
    Gloria Gaynor – I will survive

    or maybe a rendition of When Irish Eyes are Smiling would leave few dry eyes in the house – the words are really quite apt!

  • joeCanuck

    LTU,

    Don’t be so harsh on yourself.

  • Laughing (Tory) Unionist

    Kingsley Amis, Memoirs, p.325

  • Barry the Blender

    I can’t help but feel baffled when I see Mr Alliance wish the DUP well.

  • Comrade Stalin

    I have made no secret of it. There are things about the DUP I don’t like, some things they do are downright wrong, but broadly speaking they are politicians who expect to have to work to earn their votes and who in most cases want to make the country a better place. Provided their local candidate is sane, they get my #2 these days.

  • Comrade Stalin

    By the way are you the Barry the Blender ?

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    ……..and thats just me.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    ….or Simon and Garfunkels “Mrs Robinson”

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    any date on the AP Conference? I have to arrange day release in advance.
    But is it possible the DUP “wimmins” conference might be closed because a famous DUP woman is on the comeback trail?

  • Barry the Blender

    To be fair to LTU I don’t think he’s claiming to be any exception to the rule

  • Barry the Blender

    I am not the youtube celebrity however I thought I’d plagarise the man for our wee country’s blog. I must say you have something of a motherhood and apple pie of the DUP.

  • I would expect from Peter Robinson some soundbites which indicate that they are moving further towards a progressive position. In fact, it is in their interests to become more and more like an Independent Conservative Party. The following is what you might hear from him.

    Robinson might want to join the non-sectarian bandwagon or at least move nearer to it. You may yet hear the words “shared future” said by Robinson in his speech.

    He will certainly repeat the call for more integration in education.

    On the Irish economy, he will not resist mentioning it. What I expect Robinson to say is something like “I take no pleasure in what is happening in the South of Ireland” (of course that will annoy the people who think that he is) and he will go on further to say that we must not get distracted. We have a duty to re-build the economy in accordance with the tools which have been promised to us by the Conservative-led Government. He may point a finger at people who are being obstructive about setting a budget without naming names.

    You will not hear, any more, a reference to “smashing Sinn Fein” You are unlikely, also, to hear references from “the Good Book” as Liam Clarke refers to the Bible. Robinson will wish to try and move away from being seen as Christian Fundementalist party.

    In relation to Unionist unity, you wont hear any direct call for that. Instead, he will make comparisons with the UUP, which very subtly suggest that the latter have no reason for existing. He will emphasise that the DUP is the “mainstream” unionist party. He will drop another hint that the differences between his party and the UUP are purely synthetic.

  • Pace parent

    Does Peter Robnson really think that by pouring his old, sour fetid w(h)ine into new carefully labelled progressive bottles at La Mon Hotel that non-DUP unionists will not see through the fundamental problem? The DUP hierarchy are saddled with the reality that they can’t go any further back on the promises they made to the Uionist electorate at the last Assembly election.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Yes, the DUP’s mix of pragmatism and leadership skills appeals to me, and I have high regard for their senior figures, eg Robinson, Wilson, Foster etc; I listen carefully to what they have to say. Usually, when they’re talking about constitutional stuff, or culture, or marching or whatever I turn right off (and since people like McCausland and Campbell talk about little else I don’t listen to them much). But as administrators, political leaders, and constituency workers, they are among the best this country has to produce.

    The rest of the lineup is pretty pathetic. The UUP is full of idiots who come out with stupid stuff to grab headlines, or who are prepared to stake everything on crazy “master plans” like the whole UCUNF idea. I don’t know what the point is in them anymore. The SDLP seem to be engaged in some sort of internal struggle, over matters like the FF hookup, how nationalist they should be (a question which led to Declan O’Loan’s suspension from the whip) which reminds me of bald men fighting over a comb. And making a big noise about how Irish reunification is their number one policy priority is very silly given they don’t have any kind of means to deliver on it.

    The same applies to SF, who are getting better, but the whole business with Ruane and education leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Some of the problems with SF, granted, have been due to Gerry interfering in things, and it’s quite possible that we could see some sort of deal on education post-election if Gerry is out of the way.

    So yes, occasionally I do get asked for advice on how to vote, and I tell people that my preference at the moment is – depending on the candidate – to put the DUP as #2. It depends on the circs though, if I were in North Down I’d be transferring to the Greens, I’d very much like to see Steven Agnew in the assembly.

  • Barry the Blender

    Interesting. Although I could have sworn I’d read you transferred to Sinn Fein at the Euros.

    I’m perhaps unsurprised that you hate the moderates I suppose.

    But the idea that the DUP is full of all these selfless, hardworking individuals who just want a better northern ireland and a better tomorrow is a lot of codswallop.

  • Alliance party conference is on 22 January 2011 in the Dunadry

  • Comrade Stalin

    Interesting. Although I could have sworn I’d read you transferred to Sinn Fein at the Euros.

    I actually can’t remember who I transferred to after the Greens. It could well have been SF as I was rather put off by the DUP “largest unionist vote” dick waving thing.

    I’m perhaps unsurprised that you hate the moderates I suppose.

    Can you explain what “moderate” means and tell me what you think separates the DUP from the UUP these days in terms of policy ?

    But the idea that the DUP is full of all these selfless, hardworking individuals who just want a better northern ireland and a better tomorrow is a lot of codswallop.

    It’s a good thing I didn’t claim that, isn’t it ? No political party is perfect and I was very careful to qualify what I said above.

    It’s very easy to do what you’re doing and be a cynical bastard, but I try to give credit where it is due.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Politicians breaking promises ? That must be a world first, who would have thought we would find it right here under our very noses.

  • Brilliant blog about DUP Conference Preview – moving forward or staying in the same place? Slugger O'Toole. I read it twice.