It’s not only journalists and bloggers who write up proceedings of political party conferences. The DUP conference in autumn 1989 was attended – as it still is – by officials from the Northern Ireland Office. The record inside a particularly battered and torn orange Political Developments in NI file – CENT-3-144A – notes that “many of the speeches and sentiments expressed were depressingly predictable but there were a couple of points of significant interest”.
First it is clear that the DUP is relaunching itself in a bid to become the main unionist party; to all intense and purposes the unionist pact is over.
Despite John Taylor and Peter Robinson being labelled as “pragmatists” who could “when the chips are down … work harmoniously together”, conference proceedings included “strong personal attacks on John Taylor” though the author notes that “this abuse may however have been largely for internal consumption and part of the DUP’s efforts to distance itself from the UUP”.
Second, the DUP is going all-out for devolution. The slogan for the Conference was “Devolution – power to the people” and Peter Robinson promised that this policy would be pursued “dynamically” and “regardless of whether other parties support us or stand in our way”.
The note finishes with the suggestion that “the UUP are finding it difficult to maintain their position [and] the Party will have to do something soon to reassert themselves in the face of both the DUP relaunch and the threat of their electoral support diminishing as a result of the Conservatives”. The NIO official adds that “it is conceivable that [Ken] Maginnis’s current profile could be a prelude to him seeking to bid for the leadership of the party”.
The same file notes the departure of the first Peace Train between Belfast and Dublin in a two sentence in the 22 December 1989 briefing for the Secretary of State.