DUP conference (updated)

12:00 The delegates finally get to wave their flags and give a stand ovation and a half to Peter Robinson who struggled to get them to sit down so he can start his speech.

You don’t need to take my word for it: just ask yourselves, is Northern Ireland better off now than it was twenty years ago? Investment is coming back, new jobs are being created and there’s a real future for our young people and a reason for them to stay here in the Province.

And our future is once again in our own hands. We’re no longer reliant on others to protect our interests, no longer frustrated by governments negotiating over our heads, behind our backs and against our best interests or by policies which are set from London following strong influence by Dublin.

I also want to personally thank you all for the support that you have given me these past twelve months. I’ll not deny that this has been my most testing year of my life. But the real test of any person isn’t how they stand up in a gentle breeze but how they weather the battering when the relentless gales blow.

The dark clouds that formed over Dromore in 2008 and which still persisted even during the period when I became leader of the party, still persisted at the European Election in 2009, I believe have now lifted … We have re-connected. It was a painful lesson but we listened to people and we learned.

And you can be absolutely certain that whenever the next Westminster election comes around our number one target will be returning East Belfast to DUP hands. (huge cheers)

Lots of mirth at the prospect of Gerry Adams having to be in the Queen’s pay in order to be disqualified from Parliament by taking up the Crown Steward and Bailiff of either the Chiltern Hundreds or the Manor of Northstead. Drumlins Rock correctly points out that Iris Robinson is still in fact the current holder of the Chiltern Hundreds!

Restates his support for the institutions over direct rule. There are problems with the operation of the Assembly and Executive.

For us the present arrangements are a transitional phase to a more normal form of democracy for Northern Ireland. That’s why we insisted at St Andrews, and had it incorporated in law, that the next Assembly would bring forward proposals on moving to a better form of devolved government.

Refers to the TUV saying:

There are those within unionism who want to tear Stormont down. They openly announced their intention and have done so in the past. They said, “Send us to the Assembly so that we can build a bulwark sufficient to cause it to fall apart”. And then they discovered that the community didn’t support their wrecking declaration so they now seek to camouflage their position behind weasel words like – “We’ve a positive agenda. Stormont is broken and we’re going to fix it”. Fix it!? These people are wreckers. (applause) We’ve heard it all before. They want to enter Stormont with a ballot paper in one hand and a Kango hammer in the other.

He lists some of the achievements at Stormont.

We’ve provided free travel on public transport to everyone, like myself, over the age of 60. It’s the most generous scheme in the whole of the United Kingdom – in fact there’s now  60,000 smart-passes in circulation and five and a half million free journeys have been made since the scheme was started.

We’ve introduced free prescriptions for everyone in Northern Ireland – and they’re not available in England.

In difficult economic times, when heating prices were escalating, we allocated £15million to support 100 million [meant to say 100 thousand!] households on pension credit and income support.

Earlier this month we announced 500 new jobs – actually it was 501 new jobs – brought to Northern Ireland by Citi group adding to the 900 jobs they have already located here. In September we opened offices for the New York Stock Exchange – in Belfast – which will bring four hundred new jobs. And because of investment by the Executive, Northern Ireland now has a faster telecoms link to New York than California has – and that’s as a result of the £25 million Kelvin Project.

Speaking about capital investment:

With this investment we replaced over 530 buses – you wait for one and then 530 come along at the same time! (applause) That was a cost of £74 million, and has reduced the age of the fleet from 12 years to 6.

Moving onto the economy he says they are working to secure a budget for all four years, and not just one.

As everyone knows the Republic of Ireland is facing extremely difficult economic circumstances … As a convinced and determined unionist I want to say that i sincerely want their difficulties to be resolved. Make no mistake about it we have a selfish strategic and economic interest in this matter.

I know people in the Republic get very defensive about anything that looks as if their independence is being curtailed. But can I say this – if you take economic advice from the IMF it’s not a disaster; it’s a disaster if you take economic advice from Gerry Adams. (laughter)  Although to be fair to him – he does bring a different perspective to the banking issue. (laughter after a pause)

He said that the next election was about more than just the DUP remaining the largest party.

Sinn Fein’s political agenda is very different to ours. Where we can make common cause to create jobs or improve the lives of people, we will do so. But where there are real differemces of principle or policy – we will hold our ground. We want to see Northern Ireland moving forward, together, for eveyone.

Now onto the mandatory knock-the-other-parties part of the speech.

Says the election isn’t just about the DUP remaining the largest party. It’s about the future direction of Northern Ireland.

At her party conference, the SDLP leader tells us her number one priority is a united Ireland. Now Northern Ireland is facing an economic crisis. Our people are struggling to make ends meet. Workers are anxious about their employment prospects. Poverty levels are rising. We are contending with massive cuts to our budget and Margaret Ritchie is chasing the moonbeam of a united Ireland. She just doesn’t get it. Indeed, let me tell her, she never will get it!

Last week on the BBC Caitriona Ruane said  (audience hisses loudly) that there’d never been a better time to have a united Ireland than now. You have to wonder what’s she been smoking don’t you?

I see that “I’m a Celebrity get me out of here” is back on TV. I have it on good authority that the producer wants Caitriona on the show – not as a contestant but as one of those scary jungle trials. (applause) And Caitriona knows something about jungle trials doesn’t she. (laughter)

Unionists have changed their view about Caitriona. A few years ago unionists were angry at her for going off to Columbia – now they are angry because she didn’t stay there.

Moving away from the economy and into a section of his speech covering shared future, Robinson said

So my number one priority in the next Assembly term is getting people back to work, revitalising our economy, providing support for those in greatest need and providing every citizen with a better way of life. That means growing our economy and providing opportunities for all. It means providing a safe place in which to live and it means learning to live together. That’s the agenda that people want to hear about and that’s the agenda that will determine the peace and prosperity of our people. The real question is how, together, we can achieve a shared society in Northern Ireland and how we create a better future for our children.

I didn’t make a speech about shared education because I wanted a headline; I did it because I wanted to start a debate. I think I’ve done that. I wanted to start a debate in order to create a momentum for change. And I sought the whole process so that it might lead to a solution.

So let me, without any hint or trace of a hidden political motive, invite those who have a case to be heard, to sit down – I hope – calmly, as part of a wide-ranging review of our present arrangements, and to consider how we might move to a structure which ends the separation of children at a formative age when life patterns are set and life-long friendships are made. Surely it must be possible to have a rational discourse about this matter. I’m willing to engage. And  I really do hope others will have the courage to come forward.

He looked back at the party’s timeline:

This past decade has witnessed an amazing transformation in our fortunes. Once we were seen as the party of protest. We were marginalised and isolated. Then we were seen as a party of opposition, and many said that we were unfit to govern. But today we are the party of the Union. We’re the party of progress. We are the party of the future. We are the party of Northern Ireland.

He referred to the security situation.

Northern Ireland has come a long way in the last few years. It is virtually unrecognisable from what it was twenty years ago. But we should not take the relative peace we have achieved for granted.

There are still dissident republicans who are active and who are dangerous. They undoubtedly have the potential to kill and to bomb, but they don’t have the ability to destroy the progress that we have made and achieved in Northern Ireland.

Of all the Assembly achievements in the last four years none was more significant than the united reaction to the murder of the two soldiers and the police officer by dissident republicans back in March 2009. If there was ever a moment that I was sure that we had taken the right decision in entering government, that was it. That was devolution at its strongest. Every party in the Assembly and the Executive was united as one in opposition and in condemnation …

But peace alone does not bring reconciliation. Conflict creates a damaging legacy and we must tackle that legacy

The phrase “a new Northern Ireland” kept popping up in speeches and rhetoric all through the morning. Robinson said:

The real victory for unionism is not about inflicting pain on our political opponents. It’s about creating a new Northern Ireland. A Northern Ireland fair to all, in which everyone who lives here feels a part and wants to share in its future.

We know dissident republicans can never achieve their goals but neither must we let them divert us from achieving our goals.

In a speech whose length was worthy of Mark Durcan, Robinson at last reached the final straight, and started to coast into the finishing line.

We always say that the next election will be the most important one ever – and sometimes it’s true. But it certainly is this time.

He paid tribute to young people and the military before touching again on US investment and the October conference in Washington.

The distance from home often gives the clearest perspective of what we have to offer as a community. For this wasn’t just a sales pitch given by our local politicians. Our strongest advocates were US business leaders who had already invested in Northern Ireland and wanted to tell their story. It’s not a story you often hear on the news …

And though you wouldn’t read about it in our local newspapers they lavished praise on our pro-business focussed Executive. But above all else they spoke of the quality of our young people … And more and more are coming here when they see what we have to offer. They see something that sometimes we overlook ourselves. They see the potential of our people.

Finally it was as if had climbed the peaks of his address and was now coasting back down to the finish line. He praised the achievements of sportsmen and women and the transformed skyline of Belfast and other towns, before locking back onto the subject of the election.

We will not win alone but together – each one of us in this hall today – taking nothing and no-one for granted. Door by door and vote by vote, we must win, not for ourselves, but for unionism, and for Northern Ireland. So let us go out from this conference today, resolved to take this campaign across the length and breadth of this Province. The starting pistol has sounded. From Monday, and for the next five and a half months, let victory in this contest be our cause and our crusade.

Let’s take our case to the people, secure a victory next May, and let’s keep Northern Ireland moving forward.

Standing ovation – more than a minute and a half. Flags wave. Lunch.

11:55 Playing the partly political broadcast video before Peter Robinson takes to stage. Standing room only.

11:15 Moved onto a panel on education chaired by Michelle McIlveen on the chat show set. Joined by Mervyn Storey, Jonathan Bell, Paul Hewitt (ex-Principal, Royal School Dungannon), David McCartney (Principal, Brooklands PS, Dundonald).

David McCartney talking about being trapped between department and parents with regard to preparing for tests. Says that children come first and he will go ahead and advise parents on school applications.

Storey: the only thing right about the 0-6 years strategy is the title – it took 6 years to produce. But he writes off its content.

The questions to the panel feel very stage managed, coming from a row of people sitting to one side of the hall. Earlier this morning, one delegate was frustratedly wandering around the hall asking everyone he could find how he could ask a question.

Storey speaking at end of the education panel:

When Gerry goes across the border, he should take Caitríona with him to where she lives. She thinks of herself as a tennis player – well let me tell her, it’s game set and match and she’s lost. (barely audible over the cheers)

10:50 Deputy leader Nigel Dodds up at the podium now. He starts by joking that “there may have been a power cut here but there was no power cut to the DUP on the 6 May.”

Under the DUP’s strong leadership there has been clear, steady and identifiable progress.

Talking about DUP’s party strength in councils, the Assembly, Westminster and Europe.

On water charges

… the DUP says to those demanding water charges be introduced that they have no idea what people are already having to cope with. The last thing hard-pressed families need is an extra £400 bill.

Dodds refers to Alliance as “amnesiacs” who have forgotten “their fraternal links with the Liberal Democrats and [milking] Cleggmania for electoral benefit” but instead now “wander around asking who’s Nick?”

In 2012 we will mark the centenary of the Ulster Covenant … The creation of Northern Ireland in 1921 was the ultimate consequence of the Covenant … In the next Assembly term we will be taking the onorous responsibility that will build the Northern Ireland of 2021 and after. Unionism will not need mass demonstrations in 2012. What it needs is a strong, united visionary team … The initiative lies with us.

In terms of delivering, the TUV and UUP will not be the parties to deliver a better future for Northern Ireland, let alone Sinn Fein or the SDLP. Following their electoral drubbing the TUV is pretending to change … Have you noticed Jim is trying to drop the sneer and smile a bit more.

Sadly for the UUP when they heard the phrase “steady as you drift” they didn’t realise it was a criticism. Instead they thought it was the route map for the way forward.

Dodds says that this is a party conference so a jest or two at the expense of rivals is to be expected.However the door remains open if other unionist parties want greater co-operation and collaboration.

The DUP knows, whether it is on the streets of Belfast or the lanes of Tyrone, the day when votes could be expected has passed. Every vote must be earned.

10:30 Sammy Wilson gets up deliver his speech to applause. He quips that it’s the kind of reception he always gets at the Executive. Says he has three bits of good news for the delegates.

We’ve only got 119 days of Caitríona Ruane as education minister left. (huge roar from delegates) Secondly Gerry Adams is emigrating. (cheer) And thirdly, Jim Allister doesn’t really want to wreck anything, in fact he wants to be a constructive person (muffled noise) And indeed he tells us he’s now getting people flocking towards his party. I must say that even if you did believe that it would be the first time in history that rats ever jumped onto a sinking ship rather than jumping off it. But he says he doesn’t want to wreck, he wants to fix. And he’s the new Mr Fix-it. The Jimmy Saville of Ulster politics. Now even if you could envisage Jim Allister with long white hair, white suit, big cigar, shirt open to the waist, medallion around his neck, even if you could envisage that I can tell you he will ever be the Mr Fix-it.

I hope that [Gerry Adams’] solution for fixing the banks is a bit different to what it used to be. Even if you were able to rob banks, there’s isn’t any money to take any longer.

Sammy comments that he owes a lot to Peter Robinson for the opportunity to be Finance Minister. Then pauses to say that the party owe a lot to Peter Robinson who “didn’t quit” and led the party out of a bad patch.

Says he’d prefer people to go home knowing they’d get paid what they did last year than go home with no pay at all.

10:00 They’ve moved onto a panel discussion chaired by Simon Hamilton with Edwin Poots, Nelson McCausland, Seamus McAleavey (Chief Executive, NICVA) and Nevin Ringland (Chief Executive, Praxis Care). The only excitement has been the power cuts that brought darkness to the conference hall. But the panel continued.

09:50 They’ve finally started. Delegates who have got through the snow to the wintry car park at La Mon Hotel have been stewarded into the front rows of the enormous conference hall.

Union jack flags have been provided on delegates’ seats along with their conference packs. A cynic would suggest someone has identity issues!

Lord Morrow predicts that it’ll be the largest ever DUP conference.

Vivienne McCoy (Mayor of Castlereagh) pays tribute to Councillor Lawrence Walker who died recently.

The doors are sealed, and opening devotions proceed in calm, praying that DUP leaders will be guided so they can bring prosperity back to NI.

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.