DUP conference roundup #dup13

Much about the DUP conference felt very familiar.

The traditional route cross country to La Mon Hotel. The full to overflowing car park. The roar of applause from party members who adore their leader. The lack of mobile coverage … and the hotel wifi that that promised much but seemed to quickly run out of DHCP addresses and left the conference isolated in its Castlereagh bubble like an episode of Under the Dome (albeit without the guns).

Lunchtime was staggered again this year to feed all the hungry delegates, with exhibitors encouraged to eat during the leader’s speech. (The DUP is one of the few parties that doesn’t rely on exhibitors to come into the hall and make it look full.)

Yet there were fewer seats crammed into the hall than before. The youth of a few years ago seem to have grown up and haven’t been replenished with as many young faces in the audience. Small union flags were given out and then gathered up at the end of the leader’s speech to be put back in the cupboard until next year.

With the conference spread over two days, many of the major players – Ministers McCausland and Poots as well as MP Nigel Dodds – delivered their main addresses yesterday. Conference favourite and perhaps overly ambitions leadership candidate Sammy Wilson seemed to have been silenced: while present at the event on Saturday, he was curiously absent from the platform and the many panels.

There were speeches by Arlene Foster [audio] Nigel Dodds (about elections) [audio] and Diane Dodds . In a ten minute address delivered without notes, Simon Hamilton looked like the next but one DUP leader [audio]. Later in the afternoon, Father Tim Bartlett, Malachi O’Doherty and the Orange Order’s David Hume were to join Sammy Douglas and Jeffrey Donaldson in a panel discussion asking “Does Diversity Mean Division?” [you can listen to the panel via Malachi’s blog]

press awaiting Peter Robinson

Peter Robinson’s used his speech to mark the party’s and the Executive’s achievements as well as to look forward to Northern Ireland’s future. Mick’s already picked up on some of the themes in another post. Leaving the hall after the speech, delegates were given a leaflet listing 30 Executive achievements that the DUP were particularly proud of.

Did Peter Robinson have one eye on his own departure as leader in the next 12-18 months when he said:

I really don’t want the party to look back a decade or two from now and say “those were our glory days”. I want us to be able to say “those were the days that we built the platform that launched the party to even greater heights”.

This year there was no explicit outreach to Catholic voters and the sharing rhetoric was watered down.

I want to see a better Northern Ireland. But I continue to believe that the traditions that make up our community are interdependent. If we are to move forward as a society, we must move forward together. And for unionism to play its fullest part we must provide confident and positive leadership. We shouldn’t be defensive or apologetic about who we are or what we believe.

Near the end of his speech he said:

Unionism is at its best when it is open and inviting, not narrow and exclusive.

Talk amongst exhibitors, media and some delegates today always seemed to come back to the question of whether the DUP would run a second European candidate. Like someone dangling a ball of string in front of a cat, Peter Robinson continued to play mind games with Mike Nesbitt, sometimes emphasising the DUP’s dominance over the UUP; while at other stages in his speech he deliberately left room for the wider unionist family.

It is said that a week is a long time in politics. But I have to say that for me the last ten years have just flown by in an instant. On Tuesday we mark a decade since the DUP was entrusted with the leadership of unionism and with responsibility for leading our Province.

The DUP is the only unionist party with the strength, the skills, the strategy and indeed the vision to succeed. (applause) We are now realistically the only serious, plausible and viable unionist party. In short we’re not simply the largest unionist party, we’re the only unionist party capable of leading unionism forward.

Peter Robinson speakingLater he added:

With the further fracturing of the Ulster Unionist Party in the last twelve months and the emergence of yet another breakaway unionist party there are those who suggest that we should run a second candidate for Europe. They argue that with the Ulster Unionists down to 10% in the last opinion poll that they can’t secure the second seat for unionism.

Now we wont’ take a final decision on this until the New Year. When we do it’ll be on the basis of what’s right for unionism, not just what’s right for the DUP. That’s something Ian Paisley instilled in us and it’s always been the motivating power within our party.

I believe that unionism is stronger when it stands together, not against anyone but in defence of our shared beliefs. I don’t believe in false unity, but nor do I believe in creating division just for its own sake.

That sounds like Peter Robinson isn’t quite ready to annihilate the UUP. Though the elongated praise of Danny Kennedy’s pro-DUP voting record around the Executive table felt a little like a job offer for him to jump ship to the DUP.

The media only got a mild scolding this year.

In the media every problem or difficulty that the Assembly and Executive faces is examined in great detail and magnified beyond recognition. Yet scant attention – if any – is given to our many successes and the progress that we have made.

Peter Robinson spent about a quarter of his speech listing Executive decisions, job opportunities and going over spending announcements.

I am also delighted the first tranche of projects in the Social Investment Fund have been approved and work can begin in local communities across the Province.

While there was no direct reference to the Haass/O’Sullivan talks, Peter Robinson did touch on some of the themes.

There can be no distinction between violence by loyalists and violence by dissident republicans. There must be respect not only for people’s right to express their cultural identity, but also for people’s right to live in peace. Support for the rule of law cannot be conditional.

Moved by victims’ continued suffering, the DUP leader hoped “we can find a way to respect those who have suffered the most”.

He reminded delegates that the DUP had opposed the Belfast Agreement’s prisoner release scheme and “we will block any proposal for an amnesty for terrorists”.

On the flag protests:

One of the greatest tragedies over this last year is how legitimate protests descended into violence and economic destruction. This simply damaged the cause and tarnished the image of Northern Ireland. Most unionists were appalled by the flags decision in Belfast but they were also disgusted by the attacks on the police. It was not only morally wrong, it was self-evidently counter-productive. Support drained away from a genuinely good cause when the trouble started, Those who orchestrated violence sabotaged a sound and just cause.

Disgusted by attacks on the police, but no mention of attacks on politicians (of nearly every party). He continued:

Protests are valid and legitimate in any truly democratic society. Violence and law breaking are now. It’s always easy to point out the faults and flaws of our political opponents, but how often do we really ask ourselves if we are doing all we can to create a better future for everyone who lives here. No one knows better than me that this is not easy in the hear of battle or debate.

The speech – which due to its length and the continual interruptions for applause – overran with the BBC’s live coverage having to break away a minute or two before the final crescendo and finish. So TV viewers missed the nearly unstoppable three minute standing ovation.

DUP waving flags wide

Peter Robinson seemed tired – maybe the result of the late night/early morning rehearsal – and a couple of times he tripped over his words and ended up manufacturing long sentences to get himself back on track. The long middle section detailing Executive deliveries felt as much like a lecture to the watching media as a way to thank particular DUP ministers for their efforts.

Edwin Poots was singled out for praise “for undertaking what is undoubtedly one of the most difficult and thankless jobs when he took on the role as health minister” and received particularly strong applause from delegates. Jim Wells – once touted as the health minister in waiting – sat in the back corner of the hall, having missed out on a seat at the front. (One exhibitor missed out on his chance to present Edwin Poots with a rainbow cake when it went missing while he went for lunch.)

#dup13 timelapse from Alan in Belfast on Vimeo.

Mention of the Maze [Ed – don’t mention the war!] was left to other speakers. No mention of Doctor Who either: Peter mustn’t be a fan!

Being so strong and confident leaves the DUP with a challenge to enthuse members to work hard to secure votes in May.

Peter Robinson didn’t use today’s speech to set out his legacy liberal agenda (that in previous years has nearly overlapped with Alliance). And he stopped short of leaving delegates with two or three distinctive takeaway goals for the party to achieve.

Running a second European candidate would have given the DUP a goal to unite around and work towards.

Instead, they came, they clapped and they lunched.

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  • Charles_Gould

    Alan: thanks again for taking the time out of your weekend to write up a conference sketch for us.

  • Not very full – I didn’t hear all of the speeches live, though Diane’s is probably worth starting with!

  • Charles_Gould

    You make an interesting point about the lack of young people. Do you think there is a genuine gap there, or have you just been “conditioned” by the NI21 conference? Were there more young people at the UUP conference?

  • SDLP had a lot more actual youth visible in the conference – I’d to look quite hard to find student aged folk in the DUP audience during the leader’s speech. (UUP crowd would have been older again.)

    Here’s a couple of wide shots of large sections of the audience. Does it look young?!


  • There was a few young-uns sitting near me. However the DUP is undoubtedly one of the older parties.

    NI21 & SDLP have a large and very visible youth following. Good day all the same, good rhetoric. Peter setting himself as a statesman.

  • Charles_Gould

    It’s encouraging for the SDLP that it had so much youth. A good sign for the future, because a while back people used to say SDLP was an old persons party. No longer.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Hi Alan, three things struck me watching it on TV, only one of which you mentioned.

    1. the almost minimalist background, hard to say if it was slick or bland. (the PPB was in the same basic style, bit like NI21’s “new website” )

    2. there was still quite a few chunks attacking Jim Allister, the old snide Robbo, he can’t seem to let it go.

    3. Arlene was “talked up” second only to Diane, yet it was his brief mention of Poots that got the reaction, tradtitionalists telling him they still hold the power?

    As for two candidates, playing games showns Robinsons usual comtempt for the electorate. But rather than uniting it will mean the country split in two, and two camps as well, hardly a recipe for unity.

  • Charles_Gould


    You are right. They *really* gave Poots a noticably bigger applause.

    But I wondered if that’s actually to do with the fact he has been criticized a lot lately, and they want to show him support. (i.e. it doesn’t indicate they prefer him to the others who were applauded less)

  • carl marks

    Interesting that PR chose this week to break a five year self-imposed ban on interviews with the Irish News to tell Catholics that the DUP was the natural party for center to right wing Catholics to support but gives little reference to it at this year’s conference, last year it was his big idea!
    Also we seem to be getting mixed messages on the protests and parades thing, the OO and the “Civil Rights camp” had two protests at Ardoyne, not only is this a very volatile flashpoint and a main road which being blocked on one of the most important shopping days of the year is not helpful for the economy. In attendance was Ruth Patterson supporting the right (thankfully only a few Hundred turned up not the 5000 the organisers predicted) to protest, if the DUP was sending a message about its attitude to the protesters and its attitude to the residents then sending Ruth certainly sends a certain message.
    But what if Ruth went without either PR’s consent or maybe she just didn’t bother asking, Perhaps the DUP strategists think that nationalists don’t know what they’re saying to unionists, and vice versa or the stress inside the DUP in becoming more obvious!

  • Comrade Stalin

    I think Robinson is floating two candidates to intimidate the UUP. My guess would be that the DUP have offered the UUP a unity deal/electoral pact, and the UUP are hesitating to swallow it.

    Historically the DUP have always been careful/conservative about running too many candidates in STV elections. If they ran two in the European elections it would be unusually risky for them. Besides, they have the prospect of topping the poll which I think will be too much for them to resist.

  • DUP on Diversity and Division:

    .. chaired by Sammy Douglas and also there were Fr Tim Bartlett, Jeffrey Donaldson and David Hume, for the Orange Order. The first question is for Fr Tim.

  • Fr Tim and Malachi reaped the main applause from the DUP audience. This from Malachi: “I just want to say there may be another division opening up – and, for people like me, the image of right-wing Catholicism bonding with conservative Evangelicalism is the nightmare scenario” was met with a riposte from Fr Tim about something to do with secularism being mutual; Fr Tim won that round 🙂

    The following two observations from Malachi also went down well: “We’re not a particularly unusual people. I’ve lived in various parts of the world and I have to tell you I’ve lived amongst stranger people than Ulster protestants … I voted for the good Friday Agreement and in some ways I’ve regretted voting for the Good Friday Agreement”.

  • Master McGrath

    Have to say that the pics of the Conference do not show a ‘youthful’ gathering – more a room full of people waiting to hear about their bus passes accompanied by their carers.
    But the same is generally true for all political parties I suspect – certainly on my side of the water evn the SNP are looking decidedly more elderly than they did previously, and that is with the benefit of an amazing victory in the Scottish Parliamentary election and with the Referendum running next year.
    Perhaps we have not got round yet to accepting that the days of the mass movement political party is gone, except in advanced societies like North Korea, Zimbabwe etc.
    The young interact in different ways socially and generally are resistant to the appeal of sitting in halls expressing views that the political party organisations tend to take little (no) heed of.
    This is especially true when it comes to voting as the young seem not to have any urge to attend in any numbers to discharge their democratic franchise.
    Some tend to place the blame for this on the absence good, or conviction politicians, but it perhaps springs from disinterest in the process or disbelief in what the politicians say and then do – providing they have noticed at all.
    Having listened to some of the links here what I can say for myself NOTHING was said that would enthuse me to get up out of my chair and vote for any of these very uninspiring politicians who are more interested in explaining away things rather than anything else.

  • Charles_Gould

    Arlene Foster made a very good speech. Arlene Foster wants direct air links to Canada, Germany, and the Middle East.

    Soon the two main parties in NI will be led by women: Arlene leading the DUP and and Mary Lou leading SF. In a couple of years Alliance will be led by Naomi Long. This brings hope.

  • pmcilveen

    As someone who was it the conference, I think the pictures don’t do credit to the many young people that were there. There were many near the front and most of the people standing at the back and around the sides were younger.

    I was very impressed by Peter Robinson’s speech- he set out a clear account of the DUP’s growth and reasons for it and to be fair to him gave a good account of the DUP’s achievements in government.

    Of all the conferences i was at is year, this was by far he most professional, most well organised and the one with the most buzz.

  • “Peter Robinson did touch on some of the themes: There can be no distinction between violence by loyalists and violence by dissident republicans.”

    He also ‘touched on’ his OFMDFM colleague and the Provisional Republican Movement:

    “There can be no distinction between terrorism today and terrorism in the past. .. Ultimately, we may not be able to agree with everybody about the past but we are absolutely clear that no-one will be allowed to use the process to re-write the history of the past. .. We mustn’t allow ourselves to be defined by the problems that we face but by the opportunities that we have; above all, we mustn’t turn a struggle with the most obstinate and reactionary forces within republicanism into a conflict with the broader Catholic and or even Nationalist community. Does anyone believe that Sinn Féin adds to its support base by its glorification and commemoration of terrorism? .. I believe they risk retreating back onto territory they won’t grow or expand, playing into the lowest common denominator in the hope that it holds on to a belligerent and bellicose Republican base.”

    In a recent comment in New York, Martin highlighted the difficulties brought about by the uncontrollable actions of hardline Unionists and Nationalists but Peter failed to acknowledge his colleague’s difficulties.

  • Just to extend Malachi’s contribution:

    “We’re not a particularly unusual people. .. and when you come into a conference like this on a day like this and find the geniality and the almost sense of carnival about the place and people enjoying each other and enjoying community and enjoying politics and then you have to accept we are, among ourselves, ordinary decent people. So what then is the cause of division if it is not something inately horrific and bigotted in ourselves? I think one of the potential causes of division, certainly one of the real ones, is the political structures that we have.”

    and from Fr Tim:

    “I think the whole issue of pluralism and diversity in our society is something that can only really be managed by a concept of porous boundaries where we respect the right of individuals or groups to their own particular identity – whatever they choose that to be or indeed multiplicity of identities – and the key for the success of that porous boundary, where we all share common citizenship and a common interest in our economic and social future together as a society, the key to that are the good old fashioned values of respect, neighbourliness, sense of co-responsibility for each other, Christian values of loving our neighbour, putting ourself into the other person’s shoes and realising that the future cannot be ultimately separate, that there’s a level of interdependence that we have with each other that obliges us to create the space for the difference of the other and where we mediate that space with respect for the other mutually and they’re the key concepts.”

  • “Now we wont’ take a final decision on this until the New Year. When we do it’ll be on the basis of what’s right for unionism, not just what’s right for the DUP. That’s something Ian Paisley instilled in us and it’s always been the motivating power within our party.

    I believe that unionism is stronger when it stands together, not against anyone but in defence of our shared beliefs. I don’t believe in false unity, but nor do I believe in creating division just for its own sake.”


  • “Seriously.”

    @the dissenter,

    Robinson was just demonstrating that whatever the Republicans can do, unionists and loyalists can imitate almost as well. In this case it is attempting to rewrite the past.