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]
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.
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.
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.)
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.