Party conference season is a bit like a prolonged pilgrimage for those of us who attend the annual gatherings of up to ten political parties operating in Northern Ireland. What what are they really like?
The bulk of the conferences are squeezed into October and November, with the remainder running in January or March before election season begins. We’ll update this post with links to conference write-ups as well as new details when they become available. So far, the line-up – including a few less traditional conference-style events – runs as follows:
- 10 October at 9.30am – PUP – Clandeboye Hotel, outside Bangor [reviewed]
- 16-18 October – Labour/Co-operative Parties’ joint Autumn School – The Adelphi, Portrush
- 24 October – UUP – Ramada at Shaw’s Bridge [reviewed]
- ? – éirigí – ?
- 7 November – Workers Party – Lansdowne Hotel, Antrim Road, Belfast
- 13-14 November – SDLP – Armagh City Hotel [Friday and Saturday reviewed as well as new leader announcement]
- 20-21 November – DUP – La Mon Hotel [Friday and Saturday reviewed]
- 21 November – UKIP NI
- 28 November – TUV – Hilton Hotel, Templepatrick [reviewed]
- 27 February – Green Party – Clayton Hotel, Ormeau Avenue, Belfast
- 5 March – Alliance – La Mon Hotel
- 12 March – SDLP – Derry (the annual conference will move to spring from now on)
- 22-23 April – Sinn Féin – The Convention Centre, Dublin
- <don’t hold breath> – NI21 – tba
Also relevant are the post-primary assessment dates: AQE on 7, 21 and 28 November; GL on 14 November (supplementary assessment 5 December).
There are multiple drivers for each party conference. At one level they are about motivating and communicating with party activists, enthusing them for upcoming elections and campaigns.
Unionist parties leave policy debates to more private settings whereas the clár at Sinn Féin and SDLP meetups will be jam packed with motions to be debated. Suits and ties still dominate unionist conferences while there’s a lot more informality around Alliance and the SDLP. And there’s the feel of an extended family gathering – and a lot more swearing – when the smaller parties gather.
Conferences are also about claiming the party’s share of media attention: BBC Two NI broadcast an hour long programme around the leader’s speech, and parties expect to see summary reports on local TV and radio stations as well as some coverage in the local newspapers.
The leaders from many of the main parties enter the conference hall to rapturous applause accompanied by carefully chosen music. Given the media coverage, it’s amazing how many sound bites in leaders’ speeches are fluffed upon delivery in the hall, and how many leaders mistime the length of their speeches and risk their TV coverage being curtailed before reaching their crescendo. And let’s not mention teleprompters and lights …
Then there are the distracting jesters (and their yoghurt pots), the songsters, and the out of favour representatives relegated to the graveyard shift – after lunch – or totally removed from the platform. Set design ranges from simple to sophisticated. Behind the scenes, old and new media compete for precious power sockets and table space to perch laptops.
Hundreds of people with smartphones packed into the one location stretch the wifi in any venue. Party conferences doubly so. While the wifi in La Mon Hotel is now more plentiful than parking spaces, the venue which hosts both the DUP and Alliance is either wrapped in tinfoil or falls into a mobile ‘notspot’. [Ed – there’s a rumour La Mon Hotel is going to sponsor the next series of Under The Dome on Channel 5.]
Organisations hire tables at conferences, allowing them to give away branded freebies, and lobby circulating elected representatives. The money raised offsets the cost of running the conference in the hotel. The cost varies between parties, and charities are offered discounted rates.
Fringe events are very limited at most party conferences, perhaps a lunchtime session with a victim’s group. Stratagem introduced their #CoffeeClub format – hour long sessions from a variety of organisations throughout the day with tea and coffee freely available (usually chargeable for delegates) along with newspapers and mobile chargers – and lunchtime discussions on topical issues (eg, Scottish independence referendum and the predicted outcome of the General Election).
Slugger O’Toole plans to attend many of the conferences again this year, live tweeting key moments and bring you audio and analysis afterwards. And you could be there too: all conferences allow delegates to walk in from the street and pay a small observer fee to attend the public sessions. What might we look forward to before Christmas?
- Given the state of the Stormont institutions, DUP and UUP conferences will be keen to articulate the new-found differentiation between the two main unionist parties, while celebrating the results of the unionist pact without drawing attention to each other’s Westminster gains. There could be a lot of finger pointing.
- The SDLP will have to rise above smouldering questions about their leadership. Positive statements and aspirations may be drowned out by criticism of the other (ex-)Executive parties.
- UKIP have previously held a day for NI supporters in addition to their UK-wide conference. Having polled better (admittedly with more candidates) than the TUV in May 2015, UKIP will want to build their local platform and showcase Assembly candidates.
- Whether NI21 bother to run a conference this year, never mind an AGM, remains a mystery. Though with NI21’s 2014 accounts showing membership dues of just £295 and a deficit of £6076, the long term viability of the decimated party feels quite limited.
- The PUP are first out of the blocks on Saturday 10 October. Welfare Reform, continuing concerns over parading and the situation at Twaddell along with the party’s strategy for the Assembly election are likely to dominate the agenda.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about, reports from, live-tweets and live-streams civic, academic and political events and conferences. He delivers social media training/coaching; produces podcasts and radio programmes; is a FactCheckNI director; a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland; and a member of the Corrymeela Community.