DUP conference: dogmas, Mexican bandits, turkeys, opposition, outreach #dup12

The DUP is undeniably changing.

  • Ten years ago who would have thought that purveyors of the trade organisation representing sellers of the devil’s buttermilk – Pubs of Ulster – would be sponsoring a drinks reception at the DUP conference?
  • Who would have predicted that a Irish government minister would be welcomed to the DUP conference and that delegates would speak highly of his understanding of the minutiae of CAP reform?
  • Could you imagine a Conservative Secretary of State being willing to attend a DUP conference and speaking about their shared vision on various policy issues?
  • Would the party’s previous leader have openly suggested “abandoning out-dated dogmas” or recommended adjusting the party to become more attractive to disenfranchised Catholic voters?

Slowly but surely Peter Robinson is putting his stamp on the DUP’s direction of travel. While careful avoid losing too many loyal supporters, he’s weaving a deft path between those who parade and those who don’t, as well as between the conservative evangelicals and the more liberal unionists.

The party’s challenge is to find ways for all its elected representatives to own parts of Peter Robinson’s vision and language. That’s the only way it will transform from nice rhetoric to real leadership on the ground. Otherwise, Peter Robinson’s words will be judged cynically and their depth questioned. After two years of similar DUP leader conference speeches, it is time for words to be replaced with action. Voters will get a chance to give their opinion in 18 months time.

Of course, in the meantime, Robinson’s challenge is to stay statesman-like and rise above the temptation to give in to whataboutery and sniping at other parties. And maybe it’s about time he gave the Irish News an interview if Catholic voters are really going to be fêted?

[Audio recordings from the main sessions throughout the day are embedded throughout the post and also available in one long list here.]

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While there were just over 100 in the conference hall to hear the opening devotions (a reading of John 1 and a prayer), numbers swelled to around 700 by the time Peter Robinson took to the stage at noon.

The morning started with a series of upbeat presentations on health – including a video of a telemedicine robot tootling around a hospital seemingly unaided – followed by a speech by Minister of Health Edwin Poots.

I intend to launch a draft cross-departmental autism strategy and action plan within the next ten days.

In part of his speech, Poots focussed on increasing accountability, announcing a “series of Ministerial accountability meetings … [that] will be conducted in public”. Each year, senior officials from some of the seventeen arms-length bodies will take part in public discussions with the minister addressing “areas such as corporate governance, quality and performance”.

Poots also made brief comments about the Marie Stopes clinic and his stance on abortion within Northern Ireland

Deputy leader Nigel Dodds began his speech by quoting Franklin Roosevelt – “There are many ways in which to move forward, but only one way to stand still” – before stating that the DUP was “a party moving forward”.

Given the removal of John McCallister from the role of deputy leader (and the abolishment of the deputy post) and Delores Kelly’s solo run on opposition at the recent SDLP conference, Dodds said that he “might have to be careful about what I say this morning”.

He name-checked successful local Olympians and Paralympians, but seemed to omit mentioning the Team Ireland boxers from Belfast.

In Westminster out influence is growing and being felt. The attendance of the Secretary of State Theresa Villiers MP and the Shadow Secretary of State Vernon Coaker MP here at our conference only serves to highlight out ever growing status in Parliament. We are no bit part players being pushed around. We play a key and pivotal role.

He called on Sinn Fein to “make up their mind” between being “part of the new future in Northern Ireland” or “simply the voice of opposition and protest”.

Sinn Fein need to decide if they are going to stop looking over one shoulder at the SDLP and over the other shoulder at dissidents and start to change their focus and look ahead …

North Belfast proves that it the will exists transformation can be made … progress was made on the Girdwood site when we all worked together. Girdwood stands as a beacon to what can be achieved in the future. But Girdwood cannot simply be a one off, it must be the norm.

Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment Arlene Foster was up next with a speech that the current state of NI businesses, schemes to reduce costs and red tape and to encourage investment, and highlighting Invest NI activity.

The leaders of the world will be enjoying good old Ulster hospitality when the G8 summit is held in the Lough Erne golf resort in County Fermanagh. What a wonderful shop window on the world. Northern Ireland will be strutting its stuff on the global stage. We will show what our wee country has to offer for tourists, for businesses and for investors.

Foster announced a review of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board “to ensure that there is a greater alignment between what this organisation does and the work of Invest NI”. While making no mention of The Gathering, Foster’s remarks turned south of the border:

It is also vital that Tourism Ireland starts to promote Northern Ireland as a part of the United Kingdom on the island of Ireland. For too long officialdom has been afraid to promote Northern Ireland as a country with all its rich cultures and traditions.

MEP Diane Dodds was the warm-up act just before the leader’s speech. Compared to hustings and studio appearances during the last European elections, her performance this morning oozed confidence and passion.

Peter Robinson entered the hall to the same music as last year – The Call, Let the Day Begin – and his oration touched on many of the same points he spoke about twelve months ago on the same stage in the same hotel room. (BBC Two NI’s coverage of his speech is available to watch on iPlayer until next weekend.)

No unionist leader could avoid referencing the 1912 Ulster Covenant in a speech this year:

A century ago this autumn our forefathers overcame the greatest crisis which ever faced unionism, and in this decade, I believe that we have been presented with unionism’s greatest opportunity.

And this time our purpose is not to defeat, but by words and deeds to persuade.

Having failed to convince people back here of the value of a United Ireland Gerry Adams – like the undead from a “B” movie – roams around the globe lecturing people about creating a united Ireland. But I want us to use our powers of persuasion here at home, where it matters, to expound the benefits of belonging to the Union.

That means challenging ourselves as well as challenging others and it means building a society where everyone feels equally valued.

I’m sure Gerry Adams feels valued after that example of respect and veneration.

This autumn other parties have used their conferences to debate opposition, to criticise their political opponents – and sometimes their so-called friends – and to decry what Northern Ireland has achieved.

Today, I want to take a different approach. I want to talk about the Union, about jobs, about programme delivery and about reconciliation. I want to focus as much as possible on a vision of hope, of progress, of optimism and accomplishment – a future built on advancement, on prosperity and on positive politics.

And if Robinson had stuck to being positive – instead of letting the negativity and criticism of others creep in – it would have been a better speech.

We in this party are the custodians of unionism. My goal as leader is to lay the groundwork that will cement our place within the Union.

If that means taking tough decisions or abandoning out-dated dogmas, then I’ll do it. Because the essence of our success has been, and will be, that of remaining true to our enduring values, but doing so in a way relevant to this modern world.

Which begs the question what some of the out-dated dogmas that could be abandoned include?

This month during one of the saddest weeks of my term as First Minister I attended the funerals of Channing Day and of David Black.

Lives lost in the service of others. Words cannot ease the pain that their families and friends will be feeling now, but we are humbled by their sacrifice.

Both at home and half way around the world these people chose to serve their country. Nothing can bring them back, but no one can erase the lives they lived nor the service they have given.

Just as we remember those who died serving us all, let us also remember those who continue to serve whether it is here or abroad. Their extraordinary work allows each of us to live normal lives.

Dungannon Councillor Sammy Brush – sitting in the front row – had already been mentioned from the platform earlier in the day. Robinson singled him out again:

As a party it is also right that we spend a moment this afternoon in solidarity with one of our own. One who terrorists tried to murder but due to his courage and adeptness – he survived. In spite of facing a hail of bullets and being shot several times, he managed, though injured to shoot one of his would-be assassins before struggling to his vehicle and driving to the local police station from where he was transferred to hospital.

Not content with their failure to murder him, his home continues to be attacked and he and his family face on-going abuse. This recently reached a new low when councillors in the same council of which he is a valued member – in his presence – voted to have one of his would-be murderers released from jail. Conference, I ask you to rise and show support and solidarity with our colleague – our friend – Dungannon Councillor Sammy Brush.

Robinson warned against the party becoming “smug or complacent”:

The DUP has triumphed because it is united and strong; because it looks to the future and not just to the past and because it does not just say things to court a popular tide but rather it says what it believes and believes what it says.

And although we have been very successful we must not be smug or complacent.

Just recall how quickly other parties have fallen from power. I don’t need to warn anyone in this hall what division does to a party’s prospects. I don’t need to warn anyone in this hall because the DUP has always been as much a family as it is a political party.

Belfast Lord Mayor Gavin Robinson was asked to stand at one point. Robinson offered to buy the razor that would shave off his charity moustache at the end of November, saying “you can’t win seats in East Belfast looking like a Mexican bandit” – a reference to Gavin Robinson (no relation but his former special adviser) running in East Belfast at the next Westminster election.

Unlike two years ago when she was removed from the final draft of the speech, MEP Diane Dodds was praised by the leader today:

In Europe Diane has been tremendous, not just for what she has achieved in the Parliament but what she has delivered for so many individuals and groups up and down the Province.

And her husband and deputy leader Nigel Dodds was commended too:

And when it comes to friendship and loyalty I suspect Mike Nesbitt and Alastair McDonnell could only dream of the level of support that I can rely on from Nigel.

Sinn Fein’s keenness for a border poll delivered one of Robinson’s few sound bites in the 45 minute long speech.

Defeatism and despair were common-place, but today we have the confidence of knowing that a majority of Protestants and Catholics alike support our constitutional position within the United Kingdom. They know they are better off with Britain.

The one party that seems oblivious to the shifting sands of opinion is Sinn Fein. One of the most bizarre developments in recent times has been the Sinn Fein call for a Border Poll.

Now, I know opinion polls are not a perfect gauge of public opinion, but when the last one showed that fewer than 10% want a United Ireland now, republicans really should take the hint.

Republicans asking for a border poll makes turkeys voting for Christmas look like a carefully considered strategy.

More than a page of the speech was devoted to Robinson’s musings on the state of the Stormont’s “scaffolding”.

Power sharing is not something that many unionists would place as their first preference, but the reality is that cross community government has increased support for the constitutional status quo in Northern Ireland.

Understanding the significance of that trade-off is important as we plan for the future. It doesn’t mean that every aspect of the present arrangements should be sacrosanct. It means that any new structures have to be able to command support across the community.

That’s not just my view. It is accepted by virtually every unionist politician. I get frustrated, when every time I suggest changes that could make Stormont work better, nationalist and republican politicians accuse me of wanting a return to majority rule.

It’s as if they believe I am hatching a cunning plan to return to the 1930s. I’ve been around politics long enough to know that if any significant part of this community is disaffected then none of us wins.

So I call on nationalists and republicans who are fearful of change to look afresh at our political structures and ask themselves the question: what will best deliver for the people we all represent?

The DUP would “facilitate” any party wanting to take on an “opposition role”

I say to them, “Even if you don’t yet feel ready to create a voluntary coalition government, surely there can’t be any reason not to provide for a credible voluntary opposition.”

I don’t fear facing an opposition. Why should I? The DUP has by far the best and most able Ministers and there are no better ideas coming from any other party or member in the Assembly. In truth, I would prefer the UUP to work alongside us in harmony and in partnership but I am prepared to facilitate them or indeed any other party if they feel they cannot make a positive contribution in the Executive and wish to opt for an opposition role.

Let’s be open and honest, being in the Executive has not prevented some from positioning themselves in opposition when it suited them. I forced myself to listen to Alasdair McDonald speak to his party faithful – and some not so faithful. He attacked the Executive for what it had done and he attacked the Executive what it hadn’t done. He criticised the Executive for its ideas and he criticised the Executive for having no ideas. What bemused me most was not just the nonsense he was uttering but that he appeared to be completely unaware that his party was in the Executive.

In the SDLP’s world – and not theirs alone – they are in the Executive when positive announcements are to be made but they are found heading the opposition charge when hard decisions have to be taken.

But let me be clear – as the party that has consistently sought to improve the Assembly structures – the DUP remains willing to support additional resources and speaking time for a genuine opposition as a modest first step towards normalisation of our democratic structures.

Having articulated the party’s confidence, Robinson went on to look at wider society. As someone commented, he was in “growth mindset” rather than “fixed mindset”.

After all, we are not just the largest party within unionism; we are the party for Northern Ireland. So as unionists we cannot afford to push a narrow agenda. We must embrace the whole community. Because it is our responsibility to make Northern Ireland work.

That means winning the battle of ideas and it means making hard choices – not just the popular ones. It means being able to compromise when we need to reach agreements and it means standing firm when matters of principle are at stake.

Above all, it means representing the whole community, not just one section of it. In a society that is as politically divided as ours that’s not always easy. However, I would argue, that failing isn’t the real crime when striving for a worthwhile goal; the real crime is not having the guts to try in the first place.

He applauded Sinn Fein’s reaction to dissident murders, but wouldn’t forget the IRA’s role in the Troubles.

Working together doesn’t mean agreeing on everything, it’s about working through issues and finding the maximum degree of consensus possible. But while politics has made huge strides forward in Northern Ireland, every so often we are confronted with the horror of what was once an everyday occurrence.

I welcome calls from the leadership of Sinn Fein to bring dissident murderers to justice even if some of their members are still stuck in the past. I see it as real progress, but I reject absolutely the notion that there is any moral difference between those murdered by dissidents and those murdered during the Troubles. There’s never been the slightest justification for the forty years of terrorism that blighted our Province and divided our people. None of the problems in our society required a single life to be taken.

We will not permit Sinn Fein to erase those parts of history that are inconvenient. We will not allow them to engage in revisionism. Recently Declan Kearney under a banner of “reconciliation” sought to blame all the sins in Christendom on everyone other that republicans. You would have thought that the IRA had never existed. His personal and bitter unionist-hating rant exposed his intention to use the worthy goal of reconciliation to airbrush the evil acts of republican terrorists from the history books. It would be a betrayal of the legacy of all who have suffered if history were to be rewritten to salve the consciences of the perpetrators.

Declan Kearney was never going to get a vote of thanks from the DUP:

I seek true and genuine reconciliation, but it will not happen by trying to spin a false or sanitised version of the past. Though we all arrived at this point by very different routes, we all have a part to play in building better relationships.

I am increasingly impatient to publish our “good relations” strategy which is all but ready to go to Party Leaders. It doesn’t contain everything that either I or any other leader would want – but it is a hugely positive step. I must say I take a dim view of any political party that seeks to use a sensitive issue like this to cause division in order to garner votes.

Consensus government means we have to move forward with the highest level of agreement possible. Nobody gets everything they want, but even so, let us be clear about one thing, ultimately, reconciliation will not be brought about by the words of a document, but by changes in people’s attitudes.

Outreach to Catholic voters was a topic in Robinson’s speech again this year.

The reality today is that the ‘left’ and ‘far left’ policies of both of the nationalist parties leave many Catholics effectively disenfranchised. As the leader of a party that seeks to represent the whole community I’m not prepared to write off over 40% of our population as being out of reach.

And I know that building this new constituency will require as much of an adjustment from us as it will require a leap of faith from those whose votes we seek.

The exact same disconnect also applies to our rapidly-emerging new communities from Eastern Europe and farther afield. These are people who have come to Northern Ireland in search of a better life and greater opportunity. Our policies are perfectly tailored to their hard working culture of aspiration for themselves and their families.

Like every other elected representative who graced the platform at today’s DUP conference, Robinson took a swipe at the media.

Despite what you might see or hear in the media, it isn’t all arguing and bickering.

No one knows better than I do how frustrating operating a multi-party coalition government can be. But that’s the price we pay for an Executive that commands such widespread support.

As First Minister it frustrates me to hear some commentators and politicians take every chance they get to talk Northern Ireland down. To listen to them you would think that nothing good had happened over the last five years or that devolution hadn’t made a difference to ordinary people’s lives.

And because that diet of defeatism is all that people hear about the Executive and politics it’s hardly surprising that they are cynical about Stormont. So let me take a few minutes to highlight just some of our achievements that have made a real difference.

Robinson went on to celebrate Executive decisions:

  • deferring water charges, freezing regional rate and providing 20% rates discount for over 70s living alone
  • retaining industrial de-rating and extending small business rates relief scheme
  • more generous free travel policy than anywhere in GB
  • £225 million rescue package for Presbyterian Mutual Society savers
  • £20 million gratuity package for Part-Time Reserve Police Officers and ended 50-50 police recruitment policy
  • freezing Student Fees (in real terms) for Northern Ireland universities
  • ensuring the survival of grammar schools by retaining the option of academic selection

Later in the speech Robinson made many claims about Belfast’s business success and attractiveness, but omitted to mention the period of time in which these observations were accurate (last month, last year, least decade):

Belfast is now among the world’s top 10 cities for financial technology investments ahead of Dublin, Glasgow, Toronto and even Bangalore.

Outside of London, Belfast is now the UK’s most attractive city for foreign direct investment.

There were honourable mentions for HBO, Titanic Belfast, the Giant’s Causewayt visitor centre, Irish Open Golf tournament, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee (described as “for many of us the absolute high point of the year”) and the Olympics as well as looking to future events like “Londonderry” UK City of Culture, World Police and Fire Games and the G8 summit. Despite telling a Mo Farah story Robinson avoided telling “the sash Mo Farah wore” joke.

And none of this progress would have occurred if republican paramilitary dissidents or unionist political dissidents had got their way.

Jim Allister – not mentioned by name in Robinson’s speech – will not be pleased at being included in a list of dissidents.

The speech ended with a quote from H G Wells:

Let giving of our best be the goal that motivates us in all that we do in the months that lie ahead. It was H G Wells who said, “The past is but the beginning of a beginning and all that is and has been is but the twilight of the dawn.”

We have the opportunity to make tomorrow a better day.

There was no progress report about the success of the Registered Party Members scheme in this year’s speech. Last year Robinson outlined the scheme for people “who for a variety of reasons can’t or don’t want to join a political party” but “support what [the DUP] are doing”.

[November 2011:] As an initial target, I want us to sign-up 5,000 Registered Party Supporters before the conference next year and 5,000 more the year after. And yes, I admit it. I hope that Registered Party Supporters will, in their own time, ease themselves into membership of the party itself.

Many someone from the party will enlighten Slugger readers about whether Peter Robinson’s target was met?

After lunch, Secretary of State Theresa Villiers made a flying visit to conference, and spoke about security, economics, genuine shared futures as well as the future of the union. Her physical presence at the conference was more of note than the contents of her speech.

A panel discussion titled Working Together: What is a Shared Future included contributions from Jeffrey Donaldson, Tony Gallagher and Peter Sheridan.

Social Development minister Nelson McCausland also addressed the conference about his department’s work.

One of the major challenges I face is that of having, and I stress that word ‘having, to take ‘welfare reform’ through the Assembly. Let me be clear about it, this is a real challenge. Some other parties prefer to engage in sham fights and make a pretence of ‘standing up to Westminster’ but such posturing will achieve nothing.

I am committed to making sure that we maximise on the positive elements of welfare reform and at the same time take appropriate measures, wherever possible, to mitigate against the negative cost-cutting elements that the Tories are pushing through.

I have been consistent in my approach and I have been diligent in taking my concerns, where they exist, to London and arguing for change. Already we have achieved some vital concessions for Northern Ireland, against all the predictions of the nay-sayers – concessions that Scotland, Wales and England would love to have. The approach I am taking is the approach that is working.

There is still more to be done and I am focused on delivering the best possible outcome for the people of Northern Ireland but getting that outcome is only part of what we have been doing.

While I wasn’t around to hear Friday’s opening day of the conference – and missed Sammy Wilson’s comedy routine (reported in the News Letter) which was moved away from its normal Saturday slot, perhaps after last year’s notoriety – I heard no mention today from any of the elected representatives on the platform of dealing with the past, changing attitudes to allow ‘peace’ walls to disappear, educational reform, or significant mention of working class issues.

Update – the post on Open Unionism dissecting Robinson’s speech is worth a read.