DUP shifting towards the centre – that U-turn – and what Peter Robinson didn’t say in his speech

Some final thoughts on the DUP conference.

Sure there was all of the buzz and razamataz of flag waving, jeering and clapping as well as the conservative morality. It was the DUP’s best-attended conference. The overflow car park overflowed – a local church that was running a craft fair and wasn’t impressed when their car park filled up with non-shoppers! There were cars parked in the hotel’s tennis courts!

The men were well dressed and mostly wore ties. The younger ones looked more rural rather city slickers. They sat silently during the opening prayer. The bar allegedly only served journalists at lunchtime, other than a few sparkling waters for thirsty delegates.

But the strains of the old DUP saying “no” and “never” have faded away. After a shaky few months in early 2010 when the party wolves seemed to be gnawing at his leg to get him to stand aside (or at least telling the press that they were), he was welcomed on stage like a charismatic preacher at a revival meeting, about to preach the word and heal everyone’s ailments.

Remember the tortuous journey from being anti-agreement to ending up in government with Sinn Fein. From a position of being nervous and thinking twice nay thrice about doing the deal on policing and justice, Peter Robinson marks his period of leadership as one where he is comfortable standing on stage and telling the party that they have to make compromises, that they have to work with Sinn Fein, and that they have to make NI better for all its people.

Do the party members realise quite how far they’ve moved? The platform has shifted significantly. And for 45 minutes from noon, Peter Robinson today shifted them another step away from their old home (which is now occupied by the TUV).

Side note – the TUV issued a statement just before 2pm to show their displeasure about being labelled as “rats” in Sammy Wilson’s speech.

Whilst I didn’t hear it referred to in any of the platform speeches, the double jobbing issue was never far away. The Newsletter ran the story earlier this week, and it came up twice in interviews on the BBC’s Conference programme. Basically, there’s been a pragmatic U-turn on their policy of only allowing Sammy Wilson (and the party leader, if elected as an MP) to sit in both Westminster and Stormont.

This is what the DUP told me in October:

no dup mp permitted to run for council

in relation to sammy wilson, the party leader has asked him to stay on to see through the important budget process he has commenced, but this does not equate to sammy being permitted to hold two mandates indefinitely

longer term plan is for assembly members not to be councillors but will not be possible to implement overnight- important to ensure sufficient level of experience exists within local government- over time that is the objective- speed of change will be influenced by approach we see other parties adopting

Now – because the SDLP have only withdrawn one MLA (Mark Durkan), Sinn Fein have withdrawn none, and Lord Empey is planning to run for the Assembly while sitting in the House of Lords, the DUP don’t want to be the moral leaders. They see opportunities to prop up their vote – perhaps squeezing vulnerable seats like the Sinn Fein one in Lagan Valley – and ring back some of the withdrawn big-hitters on the May Assembly ballot paper.

Technically, the local constituency associations have been running the selection processes. But the central party executive have held back one position in each constituency so they can parachute in a vote winner. One MP I talked to wasn’t massively enthusiastic about returning to the Assembly, but promised that if they did it would be to serve the term until 2015 and not to quickly resign after a few weeks.

Compared to Margaret Ritchie’s performance in the Ramada at the beginning of November, Peter Robinson delivered a solid “presidential” performance today. Confident intonation and only a few jokes not getting the intended laughs. This was a personal Peter Robinson, a man of the people, only ever referring to party colleagues by their first names. And someone secure to mention DUP legacy demons like work starting on “the new Giants Causeway Visitor Centre”.

While he talked about the DUP winning back East Belfast at the next General Election, note that he’s also talked in the last week about retiring at a sensible age. So I’d say that Peter Robinson (62) won’t be running at the next General Election if parliament runs to its full term as the Condems promise.

But what was missing?

None of the speeches I heard on Saturday (or had copies of) mentioned the Presbyterian Mutual Society. For a story that runs like a daily soap in the pages – and often the front page – of the Newsletter, it was a remarkable omission.

Lots of party reps were thanked. But the mention of MEP “Dianne [sic] Dodds” from an earlier draft of the speech was removed.

There was more talk about soldiers and the military than the PSNI or the police reserve.

No mention of unity candidate Rodney Connor who “in less than six weeks Rodney put together a campaign and came within four votes of unseating a sitting MP” in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

And absolutely no mention of Martin McGuinness, not even of “deputy First Minister”. It was as if he didn’t exist.

Catch other coverage from the DUP Conference through three posts on Ivor’s Hand of History blog.

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.