The DUP conference was a victory lap for the party, celebrating success at the Assembly election. The conference programme was packed with ten and fifteen minute speeches and contributions from ministers, the party’s MEP and a light-hearted introduction to the ‘Class of 2016’ from Gavin Robinson (who has a future as a TV presenter if he ever tires of Westminster).
It’s always one of the larger conferences, and while some faces seemed to be missing this year – from Lagan Valley in particular – attendance was good, with cars diverted away from La Mon to the overflow car quite early in the morning. Younger representatives were given a profile.
The conference comes at an awkward time. There’s no election around the corner to prepare for, the specific action plans for the Programme for Government are not yet public, and the two party Executive is as stable a marriage as could be expected. The focus on Peter Martin’s report on educational underachievement shows a continued interest in that issue, but has not translated into action. An extra £14m being put into school budgets is positive but hardly headline grabbing.
DUP speakers criticised the lack of concrete Opposition policies. However the DUP-branded air fresheners in the delegate packs weren’t complemented with a fresh breeze of new party policies, barely even an articulation of old ones, other than references to the Five Point Plan. There was absolutely no mention, never mind criticism of Sinn Féin, instead choosing to attack the Opposition. No mention of Ashers, same sex marriage, or abortion – questions which the media asked in their pre-conference interviews – and no mention of parading or Twaddell.
Despite the professionalism of the conference, the sophistication of the party slips a little when the members break into song “For she’s a jolly good fellow” and other traditional refrains. For once, one of the stories of the day was not the lack of mobile phone and wifi connectivity in the out of town venue. A microwave dish on crane and some enterprise wifi access points worked flawlessly.
Gregory Campbell introduced his party leader and she entered the hall to the strains of “We Are Family”. The choice of music seemed apt with division and dissent largely undetectable amongst party members.
Arlene Foster’s speech was a little rushed and some of the early jokes failed to pick up laughs. Unlike Peter Robinson’s speeches which were peppered with regular sustained applause, today’s speech hadn’t been written in a way that would generate that kind of response. But overall it was well delivered and well received by the party faithful.
Conference, what a year it has been! We gather here today at a time when the DUP is strong, the Union is secure and Northern Ireland is moving forward with confidence. It’s a very different scenario from where we were a year ago.
Just twelve months ago Northern Ireland was a byword for political crisis and instability, devolution was in crisis, Stormont was teetering on the brink, our rivals were cocky about their electoral chances, already measuring up the curtains for their new office, and the pundits were yet again predicting the demise of the DUP.
But today it’s different; our mandate has been renewed, our opponents defeated and divided, Stormont not just stabilised but secured, and the United Kingdom has voted to take back control of its future.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to report the Union has never been stronger. In fact, republican predictions of a united Ireland by 2016 have proven about as reliable as predictions of an electoral revival for Ulster Unionists. I know this will come as a great disappointment to Anna Lo as well as Mike Nesbitt.
These changes did not happen by accident. They happened because we were united, we worked together and we put the people of Northern Ireland first.
The leader thanked voters as well as “those who went before me and passed on the inheritance of this great party”. Peter Robinson attended and spoke at the Friday night dinner, but wasn’t present at Saturday’s conference.
The election result was important because it provided the strong foundation from which we will build a better Northern Ireland. By working together, in the most trying and difficult of circumstances, we emulated this party’s best ever Assembly election result.
And in doing so we not only extended our lead for the second successive election over Sinn Fein, but for the first time ever we are the largest unionist party in each and every one of the eighteen constituencies in Northern Ireland.
She noted the success of the party’s female candidates.
The Assembly election was also an historic day for women. I hope the men in the audience will forgive me if I say that I was absolutely delighted to see every single female candidate we put forward at the election returned at the polls. And that’s a product not of quotas or of favouritism, but of picking the right person for the job.
I was also delighted with the new, young talent that has come into our Assembly group since the last election. This augurs well for the future.
On the Fresh Start Agreement and Peter Robinson’s contribution …
It was a remarkable and historic achievement – and it was your achievement. All the progress we have made would not have been possible without last autumn’s Fresh Start Agreement and it would not have happened without the leadership of the man who guided us through this last decade, Peter Robinson. When others fled the battlefield and headed for opposition, it was Peter who held his nerve in the most challenging of circumstances to see us though to better times.
It is not just this party, but the people of Northern Ireland who owe Peter an enormous debt of gratitude and I was personally delighted that we were able to show our thanks to Peter at our dinner last night. For me, coming in the wake of such great leaders as Peter and Dr Paisley is not just an enormous challenge, it is a great honour.
I sought the leadership of this party for a single purpose – to use this office to build a better, more prosperous Northern Ireland for all, in a stronger United Kingdom. And I am conscious, not just as the first female First Minister but the youngest First or Prime Minister in Northern Ireland’s history, that a heavy burden of history lies upon my shoulders.
That is why I consider it a great blessing to have Nigel Dodds as my deputy leader. Nigel was not just the brilliant Director of Elections who helped mastermind our victory back in May; he has been a constant source of encouragement and advice …
So we have made a strong start, but it is just a start. The people of Northern Ireland expect us to deliver on our plan for a stronger Northern Ireland – and deservedly so.
My five-point plan was not just the basis for our election campaign; it will be our guiding light for the next five years. We were elected on the basis of our five-point plan and we will deliver on it. This plan was based on what the people of Northern Ireland wanted. Now, you won’t often read about these people in the newspapers or see them pontificating on the television, but they are the real heart of this country.
[The media were commented upon a lot during the day by different speakers!]
That is why I launched my Province-wide listening tour to go out and meet the people we represent. I considered it an enormous privilege to hear directly from them – and that will not be a one-off. It will be a continuous process and a hallmark of my leadership of this party.
I’ve always known that the real wisdom in this country does not come from a small self-appointed elite in society, but from people who are getting on with their lives, doing their jobs and raising their families. Unlike others, we will remain in touch with what real people care about.
During the election campaign, some in the media tried to tell us what the election was about – and they still are, but we knew what really mattered. We knew what people really wanted and cared about was a health service to meet their needs, good schools for their children, a good job to provide for their families and a government that would invest in their future.
We knew it because we travelled the length and breadth of Northern Ireland. We took the time to sit down and to listen. It was this party that fought the election on the issues that mattered to real people and real families. And it will be this party that delivers for them.
Now is time for us to step forward, not just as Northern Ireland’s leading unionist party, but as the party for all of unionism. It is time for us to chart a course towards Northern Ireland’s second century with confidence and ambition for the future.
Today, I want to set out my vision for that future.
I came into office to help people, to take decisions and to get things done. I want us to build a better, more prosperous Northern Ireland for all, in a stronger United Kingdom. And that means not just doing what is popular today, but doing what is necessary for the future. And it means building a Democratic Unionist Party fit and ready for the next century.
That is why the election was so important, because it marked a significant staging post on the road to normal politics. The Fresh Start Agreement paved the way for the creation of an official opposition at Stormont. I believe that is good for politics here and has the potential to improve the operation of government.
On the working of the Executive and Opposition:
Without parties in internal opposition, it has been easier to reach agreement and to get things done. Today, the Executive is functioning better than at any stage since the restoration of devolution in 1999.
But there has to be more to opposition than sound-bites, sniping and smug sneers. Though I suppose we should be fair to the Oppositions.
They have managed two achievements. Colum has grown a beard. And they came up with the nickname ‘Marlene’ for the deputy First Minister and myself.
Now Marlene is a popular TV character.
But poor old Mike and Colum – they’re Steptoe and Son.
And for younger people here, Steptoe and Son were a very odd couple.
Actually, the similarities are amazing. One was an older, bitter man. The other was a frustrated, younger man. They had to live together, but they never got on. And they made a living selling junk to the public.
Since the election Mike and Colum have only been interested in one thing – themselves.
No new policies for Northern Ireland, no positive contributions to our national debate, no alternative vision for where they want to take us.
We saw this clearly on display at the Ulster Unionist Party conference last week, where there was a lot of talk about voting Mike and getting Colum or voting Colum and getting Mike.
I’m not sure that’s a particularly appealing prospect, because either way you get weaker unionism, weaker policies and a much weaker Northern Ireland. But don’t worry, the people of Northern Ireland are awake to the joke that is the Mike and Colum show
That’s why this May people voted for us. And when they voted for us, they got the best result for unionism in a generation with a unionist First Minister, a unionist majority in the Assembly and a unionist majority in the Executive.
And I for one will not be watering down my unionism to form an electoral or political alliance with anyone or any party.
It is important that the new opposition arrangements are not just a one term wonder but become part of the fabric of our emerging constitutional set-up. That’s why over the course of this Assembly I would like to see legislation passed to make government and opposition the norm, not the exception.
In this world of change it has never been more important that we have steady leadership and delivery. That is what people voted for and that is what they will judge us on. But that doesn’t mean the decisions we make will all be easy or popular. Because government doesn’t work like that.
We will have to take tough decisions now to make life better in the future. If we want a better health service, we are going to have to fund it. If we want a better education system, we are going to have to reform it. And if we want to ensure that we can attract jobs to Northern Ireland to grow our economy and provide work for our young people, then we are going to have to invest in our future.
These are big issues to grapple with, but we are well equipped to deal with them. We are equipped because we are refreshing and renewing our party – just take our new Executive team as an example. I picked a young and dynamic Executive team with an average age of forty. I am sure you will agree that in the first six months Peter, Simon, Michelle, Paul and Alastair have all already justified their selection.
It is a huge privilege to be able to represent this party and this country at home and abroad. Our people do us proud where ever they go.
Northern Ireland’s performance both on and off the field at the European Football Championships in France in June was an inspiration to us all. Our team did us proud on the field, but our supporters were the real inspiration, not just to us but to fans right across the continent. That is the image of the new Northern Ireland that I want to see presented at home and abroad.
On the first of July I also had the enormous honour of representing Northern Ireland at Thiepval for the hundredth anniversary of the battle of the Somme. No one, whether there in person or watching the ceremony on television, could fail to be moved by the enormous sacrifice that was made a century ago. And no one could have doubted the enormous role played by Ulster people. We will never forget them, nor the service they have given.
Even now, in Northern Ireland our police, prison officers and security services continue to serve the entire community to keep us safe. Though we don’t always say it as often as we should, let me make it clear how much we value their work, their service and their sacrifice.
Last week I visited the RUC GC Garden and engaged with its members about the sacrifice of men and women during the dark days of the Troubles. The Association does such wonderful work remembering the past, but they also look to the future with research bursaries for serving PSNI officers.
The darkest moment of my time in office this year was the news that Prison Officer Adrian Ismay had died following a terrorist attack back in March. I didn’t know Adrian before the attack, but was in contact with him in the days before his death. Even in that short time I got a sense of the man that he was. His death came as a great shock and was a terrible loss for his family. We will not forget him nor will we allow those who murdered him to divert us from our course.
The tragedy of Adrian’s death made me all the more determined to make sure that we put an end to paramilitary activity once and for all. I would like to see this happen voluntarily with people moving from conflict to peace, but whether the process is voluntary or involuntary, it must happen.
We have agreed to introduce new legislation to tackle the scourge of paramilitarism and organised crime during this Assembly term. And when needed, it will be used. Let me make it clear, there will be no hiding place for those who do not take the path to peace. We must make the victims of crime – and not those who terrorise – our top priority. That means making sure we get the issues around the legacy of the past right.
I want to see progress made but we will only sign up to arrangements on the past that are right for those who have suffered the most. First and foremost it will be their voices I will be listening to, not those who would seek to rewrite the past. We will not tolerate a situation where those who defended us during the Troubles are subjected to the brunt of scrutiny while the perpetrators watch on.
On Brexit, the debate was over. Full stop.
Now I’m proud of the part our party played in the Brexit campaign, not just in Northern Ireland but throughout the United Kingdom. Our electoral success has made a difference at Stormont but at Westminster too we have a real and present influence. We stood shoulder to shoulder with those who wanted the British people to take back control of their futures.
I know that there were many good people on both sides of this debate. I respect those who believed that the United Kingdom’s best interests were served by remaining within the European Union, but I have no time for those who want to refight the referendum.
That debate is over. Rather than talking up the challenges, we should be looking towards the opportunities.
Brexit represents the biggest economic opportunity for this country in decades. But the only way that we can ensure that Northern Ireland’s interests are best served is if we are united and determined.
Arlene Foster enumerated “five simple principles” that will guide her negotiations.
Firstly, Brexit means Brexit. The whole of the United Kingdom leaves the EU.
Secondly, the economic and social benefits for Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom are far more important than our relationship with the EU.
Thirdly, any deal must recognise the reality of our geography and of our history.
Fourthly, we will work with whoever we need to – to get the best deal for Northern Ireland at home and abroad.
And fifthly, whatever the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, it will not divert me from delivering on my plan to build a better Northern Ireland.
We must not allow the Brexit negotiations to divert and distract from the normal business of government, nor should it be used as a basis to reopen settled political agreements. Those will by my guiding principles in the two years to come and I believe they will help lead us to a better future.
She directed some of her harshest words of the speech towards the Irish government.
On this subject let me say one final thing about the role of the Irish government. Now, I am pleased that relations with Irish Government are probably as good as they have been at any point in our history and I will continue to work with them where it is in the best interests of Northern Ireland to do so.
However, the reality is that political instability in Dublin, and fears for their own future, are driving their decision-making at present as much as any concern about Northern Ireland. And while they seek to take the views of people of Northern Ireland on the issue of Brexit at home, their representatives are sent out around the world to talk down our economy and to attempt to poach our investors.
It is clear conference that the one place that a hard border does exist is in the mind of the Irish Government! Well, I don’t believe in a hard border and am happy to welcome shoppers looking for a bargain from across the border anytime they want to come!
And I am quite confident that the investment offer that will be available, both now and in the future, will mean our reputations as a place to invest will continue to grow.
This has been a year to remember for unionism and for Northern Ireland but we must use it as a foundation for the future and not the high water mark of our achievement or aspiration.
There will be challenges ahead but we have the opportunity to build for the future.
In 2021, at the end of this Assembly term we will celebrate the centenary of Northern Ireland. I want us to mark it with events that are befitting of the occasion. 2021 will be a seminal moment in the history of our country. It will be a testament to the strength and fortitude of our predecessors that we have reached this point.
Against all of the odds, what we now know as Northern Ireland was saved from Home Rule and a pathway to Irish Independence. Against all foes we have defended our place in the United Kingdom and ensured our British way of life. In the months to come I will be assembling people to co-ordinate and work on our 2021 events and we will be announcing some exciting plans.
Now we must look to the next century. To build a better Northern Ireland not just for ourselves, but for everyone. We need unity of purpose, we need a vision for the future and we need the strength to persevere. I have learned over the last few years that unity of purpose will only come though this party. We are the only vehicle to keep Northern Ireland moving forward with confidence.
Because of my history and my background, I believe I have something special to offer in the role as leader of this party, and I hope it is that I can bring unionists together.
My welcome to this party and my election as its leader is the clearest possible signal that the DUP is open to all who share our vision and our values. When I joined this party, the red carpet was rolled out for me and I know the same has been true of others and I want to guarantee those who are joining us, now and in the future, the same will be the case for you.
I want a party that you can join if you share our vision for the union, not one which shuns people who cannot agree with every single policy.
Though if elected, expect a three line whip to force you to vote against your view on policies you disagree with. [Ed – that’s politics!]
Attention was drawn to recently collected converts from the UUP.
I want to make this not just the largest unionist party, but the party for all of unionism. Over these past few months we have had new members joining us from all across the political spectrum.
Over the last forty-eight hours I have been delighted to welcome Belfast Councillor Graham Craig, and Limavady Councillor Aaron Callan to our ranks from the Ulster Unionist Party. They join a growing number of unionists who are uniting with us.
Today, I am also delighted to welcome the former North Antrim UUP Association Secretary and Assembly candidate Andrew Wright to our conference having joined the Democratic Unionist Party this morning from the Ulster Unionist Party.
And the door remains open …
The DUP will help shape Northern Ireland for decades to come and I say to those who want to help us in that great enterprise, “come and join us.” I can assure them all of the warm welcome that awaits them.
As First Minister I have the opportunity to meet with people from all walks of life and all across the world. We take inspiration from what some of them have achieved, but much more so they are inspired by what has been achieved in Northern Ireland.
Last week I had the opportunity to visit the Thales factory in East Belfast and to meet Major Tim Peake, who inspired so many of us during his six-month tenure on the International Space Station. During the course of that event, the audience was reminded of our proud shipbuilding heritage a hundred years ago, when Belfast was the world’s largest and most productive shipyard. It is a history we are all familiar with.
But what we are less familiar with is the fact that today, at the start of the twenty first century, we are now at the cutting edge once again. This time in the world of commercial spacecraft propulsion. Who would have believed that we would be manufacturing products which are quite literally out of this world?
While not everyone will have the opportunity to be a rocket scientist, no one should be inhibited by a lack of ambition or aspiration. I want to keep Northern Ireland moving forward for a better future for our people, for a stronger United Kingdom and a more prosperous Northern Ireland. We have made a good start but we can, and we will, achieve so much more.
Let us build on the firm foundations which we have inherited. And let us leave a legacy for our country’s next hundred years. If you want what we want for the future. If you believe that you can help change our society for the better and have a part to play, come with us and let us take our country forward.
Let us do what is needed now, so that one day, we can look back with affection and satisfaction at the progress we have made. And let us make sure that those who come after us can say that we fought the good fight and that we kept the faith.
That is my vision, and with your support, and the mandate given to us by the people of Northern Ireland, I intend to make it a reality.
Shortly after 10am, the party’s MEP addressed delegates.
Friends, I am delighted that after 45 years, Northern Ireland’s future is secure – outside the European Union … We voted to secure our right to make our own laws, control our own borders and spend our own money. Our nation has shown the aspiration and courage to chart its own course in the world, free from the shackles of Brussels.
Nobody should be more proud of this moment in history than this Party. Brussels first felt the might of Dr Paisley in 1979. This party was the original flag bearer of euro-scepticism. We have never wavered.
When the opportunity came, it was our elected representatives, our party members, and our supporters that were on the front line, battling to make the case for a sovereign UK.
On those who wish NI and Scotland could Remain:
New polls both here and in Scotland are clear. Support for the union is higher than ever before. Nicola Sturgeon should remember that even though 1.6 million Scots voted to remain in the EU, over 2 million voted to remain in the UK.
This party respects all those who saw merit in remaining in the EU. We want to work with them to ensure that Northern Ireland’s future after our exit benefits everyone. That means working with everyone to secure the best deal for Northern Ireland – even our political opponents. This will not be an easy task and many challenges lie ahead but we have the ability to rise to them.
In his deputy leader speech, Nigel Dodds said that while “other parties now define themselves by what they are against … we define ourselves positively by what we are for”.
Other parties define themselves by opposition to the DUP. We define ourselves by our positive vision for our future. Other parties define themselves by making a negative vision out of opposition. We define ourselves by engaging with others to make Northern Ireland work.
Last week there was talk at the UUP conference of celebrating NI’s new centenary by candlelight. Doesn’t that just sum them up? No not candlelight. We are looking forward to our new century with sunny optimism for a brighter future.
The North Belfast MP referred to the Assembly campaign.
We are told by some that we only succeeded at the election because of the fear of Sinn Fein. But when LucidTalk carried out their post Assembly election poll analysis what did they find to explain our success? In their report of 23 May 2016 it states: “The most mentioned reasons by unionist voters of all parties were: better leader, better candidates, better campaign”. Yes the people voted DUP for the positive leadership, the better candidates and the successful campaign we ran.
And since the election, whilst we have got on with the job of delivering, all we’ve heard from others is opposition. Always remember the SDLP and the UUP opted for opposition out of weakness. They both had their worst Assembly election results ever. How else to try to distract and try to move on?
Delivering a mid-afternoon speech, Economy Minister Simon Hamilton announced the development of a new International Trade Plan for Northern Ireland (with a Trade Advisory Board, NI Trade Ambassadors, and Invest NI’s expansion into ten more international presence by the end of 2017) as well as the creation of a new Air Routes Task Force (to help devise new policies and interventions to improve NI’s air connectivity).
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.