Today Arlene Foster will speak to the DUP conference for the first time as party leader. Writing for Slugger she outlines her vision and plan for the next mandate of government
Detail is important. For someone from a legal background like myself this is a given. Within the DUP Conference programme, there are details that are important to me and the direction I have set for my party and for Northern Ireland.
In the conference booklet I make the statement that the DUP is the natural party of government of Northern Ireland. On one level, it is a statement of the obvious – the DUP has been the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly for over a decade. However, it is also a statement of how far the DUP has come in its history.
Throughout the existence of the old Stormont government, and even before, there was a firm strain of anti-establishment politics. The onset of the terrorist campaigns, the appeal of Lord Bannside and organisational skills of Peter Robinson brought together and sustained this as a political party. However, a majority of Unionism did not opt for it until a period of critical choices. In that period the Ulster Unionist Party under David Trimble’s failed leadership systematically proved the DUP’s criticisms of it to be true – a UUP that was disengaged, disorganised and incapable of advancing Unionism.
A critique alone was not enough for the DUP to advance but it needed to show itself willing and able to take up the mantle of leadership for Unionism and Northern Ireland. Both Lord Bannside and Peter Robinson showed the desire to be more than a vehicle for protest but to deliver the progress Unionists wanted and Northern Ireland needed. This is why I and so many of my generation came to see it as the future.
Since it became the largest party we have worked assiduously to advance devolution and to get devolution to deliver. The agreements the DUP achieved proved their value in developing devolution and making it deliver more. They were always better than what went before.
We now have a system of devolution which has shown itself to be durable. It is hard to imagine a form of crisis that devolution hasn’t had to face and overcome. It has sustained, not because of self-interest, but because the people of Northern Ireland ultimately want it and want it to work. The people will get frustrated and angry – just as I and others within government will do at times – but that is driven not by a rejection of devolution but the desire for it to succeed.
The settled will for devolution in Northern Ireland requires our political culture and representation to advance. In our conference we feature heavily the MLAs elected for the first time in 2016. In May, almost a quarter of the DUP MLAs were elected to the Assembly for the first time. In my mind this is the “devolution generation” stepping forward and the voters supporting them.
Another part of our programme is a report on educational underachievement by Cllr Peter Martin. He developed an interest in the issue and in his own time researched and wrote a detailed paper with his ideas on what needs to change. This type of initiative and policy focus is what the “devolution generation” needs. The settled will of devolution means more work for a politician not less. They will have to help their constituents and have a knowledge of policy and ideas to make communities better.
Our ascent to the natural party of government doesn’t mean overseeing the paper shuffling. The natural party of government mustn’t mean the DUP becomes the party of the establishment or bureaucracy, to be true to our roots we must be the party of ideas.
The DUP’s work is far from over. The terrorist campaigns were our painful and unnecessary journey through the wilderness. The work of the last decade on devolution was the construction of our base camp. From here, with the sage advice of our experienced politicians bound to the energy of the devolution generation we press on for the summit – a Northern Ireland that enters a new century in 2021, harnessing the talents of all its people that will make it the global success that it once was again.