Foster expresses deep regret for party’s mistakes over RHI while Boris imagines ‘UKNI’ dystopia but fails to excite DUP activists #DUP18

Party conferences are strange beasts. At the same time as encouraging party members to keep the faith and gear up for the next election campaign, they also speak to ordinary voters through the local media.

The DUP have additional fronts this year, with the UK Government listening intently to any change in DUP rhetoric over the current Brexit deal plus the London media actually taking an interest this year and wanting to understand the Tory’s confidence and supply partner. While the platform backdrop was flagtastic, the normal supply of Union Flags on seats for delegates to wave had been suppressed this year.

Journalists from across Europe and beyond attended the conference which this year moved from it’s tradition La Mon venue to the Crowne Plaza hotel at Shaw’s Bridge. The furthest-travelled seemed to be the correspondent from Abu Dabai’s The National.

You can listen back to the main speeches which are embedded in this post, along with the full text of the remarks by Arlene Foster which closed the conference.

There was surprisingly little about restoring Stormont, though Arlene Foster was very positive about the need to go back, more so than the conference attendees who didn’t greet her ideas with applause. Returning to the Assembly and Executive is obviously a heavy demon sitting on the party’s shoulder that they don’t quite know how to resolve. There was no repeat of Peter Robinson’s recent call for Direct Rule. The difficult issue of the Irish Language was wrapped up in a proposal for a ‘cultural deal’.

Boris Johnson received sustained applause as he got up to speech, but his celebrity turn had nothing of substance and by the end he had lost a lot of the good will of his audience having meandered from buses to light sabres and hairdryers via Europe before finishing with a Van Morrison quote.

Comments about Jeremy Corbyn were a constant refrain throughout the conference. He’s clearly on the mind of party representatives, though the frequent mentions of his pro-republican leanings are likely to make him as hard to get into bed with as Sinn Féin was eleven and a half years ago in March 2017.

No olive branch was extended to the business and farming organisations that Sammy Wilson characterised as “puppets” earlier this week in a stinging outburst that will not be quickly forgotten.

Arlene Foster’s speech was interrupted with cheers and clapping during the first half, in particular, after her apology for the “mistakes” the party made over RHI. There were certainly no public rumblings today about Foster’s leadership of the party, but whether this apology will be sufficient when the inquiry report is finally published remains to be seen. Local party activists were less engaged by the second half of the speech which dealt with Brexit and was really directed at Tories with sore heads in London.

The live stream began after the prayers, welcome from Lord Morrow and local government panel had finished, and the Gibraltar Government’s Minister of Housing and Equality, Samantha Sacramento, had addressed the conference.

The broadcast picked up proceedings from the point MEP Diane Dodds stepped up to the podium to begin pitching the DUP’s perspective on leaving the EU.

She began by saying: “Tomorrow in Brussels Theresa May will sign off a Brexit deal that
she told us ‘no UK Prime Minister could ever agree to.’”

“So what is the impact on Northern Ireland? The EU’s Customs Code will continue to apply. We will follow EU rules on goods, agricultural production and marketing, state aid, VAT, excise and sanitary rules for veterinary controls.

“68 pages of the draft Withdrawal agreement are devoted to the rules and regulations that Northern Ireland – not Great Britain – will have to follow. In practical terms, this would see us hand control of agriculture and manufacturing to the EU. For farmers Brexit was supposed to cut red tape. Instead this backstop, if operational, would lock us into Brussels bureaucracy. London or Belfast could not legislate to change the rules.”

While “the border is an evocative subject”, Diane Dodds said that “it requires more than provocative solutions”.

Lagan Valley MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson marked the centenary of the end of the First World War.

“From the Somme to Messines, from Gallipoli to Jutland we have marked the service and sacrifice of the tens of thousands of Ulster men and women who put on the uniform of the crown to fight for our freedom. Not only those of the unionist tradition but nationalists too, Ulster volunteers and Irish volunteers fighting shoulder to shoulder in common cause.”

He added:

“Conference, let us give credit where it is due – to Enda Kenny, Leo Varadkar and their colleagues in the Irish Parliament, many of whom have given a lead in breaking new ground for remembrance in the Irish Republic. To the Royal British Legion (RoI) Branch who have led the Acts of Remembrance and to the ordinary Irish citizens who have supported the centenary in so many different ways. This has ensured that every Irish man and woman who volunteered to serve in the First World War has been properly remembered during this Centenary. This is something we can all be proud of …

“Their battlefields may have been different to those of the Great War but they were no less dangerous. From the streets of Belfast and Londonderry to the laneways of Tyrone and Armagh, these brave souls put their lives on the line for our safety and security. Many paid the ultimate sacrifice. Households that fell silent in 1916, fell silent again with the darkness of grief casting its shadow over homes in every village, town and city across Ulster.”

Before lunch, deputy leader Nigel Dodds MP spoke. He began by listing the Westminster “big hitters” that were visiting the DUP conference and joked that they had sent letters to Brexit secretaries, but they always bounced back “return to sender: addressee unknown”.

“It seems at the minute that the only person with any tenure around Downing Street is Larry the Downing Street cat, he’s endured longer than anybody. In fact, he might be a good pick for Brexit Secretary since he’s been involved in the negotiations as much as the previous Brexit Secretaries have!”

Turning to his prepared remarks, the Belfast North MP said that “we meet in historic and changing times”.

“Today the DUP stands at the epicenter of our national politics at a turning point in history. With that comes great challenges and great responsibilities. But when you have a clear set of core values, core beliefs and core principles the path becomes easier. For us the guiding star is the Union …

“In the coming days and weeks, the DUP will be tried and tested like never before. It will require the collective will not just of this party, but of all who value and cherish our precious Union, to stand firm in the face of the inevitable onslaught. In such momentous times for our country it requires strong leadership to stand up to Brussels bullying. It needs a strong leader to stand by her red lines. It takes a strong leader to stand by her promises. So step forward Arlene.”

[Alliance voters watching the live stream will have crossed off their bingo card at least a couple of their party slogans: Step Forward and For Everyone.]

He paid tribute to his Westminster colleagues: “This Parliament has placed unimaginable demands upon our MPs and I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to each and every one of them.”

Like many other speakers and panellists, Nigel Dodds referenced the considerable investment that will come with the Belfast Region City Deal and the commitments for the Londonderry City Deal.

“The Confidence and Supply deal is a two way street. The Government’s commitments under it are clear… including on Brexit. Commitments freely entered into must be delivered and if they are not, then clearly, as we have shown, there are consequences. But it is in the interests of the country and of Northern Ireland that our parties continue to work together in the national interest.

“Our agreement is of course with the Conservative Party. It is incumbent therefore on all Conservatives in Parliament who recognise the importance of continuing stability and who wish to see the Government deliver its agenda to ensure it is honoured in full.”

He described the published Withdrawal Agreement as “a pitiful and pathetic place for the United Kingdom”

He had a message for business groups who have stood up to the DUP in recent days:

“Those who say this backstop is good for our economy or business need to consider the effect of the trade barriers and growing divergence that would inevitably emerge, some immediately, most in future years, between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK …our main market and from where most of our inward trade comes from. No wonder the Chancellor of the Exchequer said it’s not good for our economy, it’s not good for our Union.”

The message to Theresa May was clear:

“Prime Minister – bin the backstop. Rather than waste any more time putting forward false choices, we need the government to get on with securing a better deal.”

The deputy leader’s final comments turned very briefly to the local devolved institutions.

“Whilst Westminster is centre stage, we must never lose sight of the fact that the interests of Northern Ireland and of Unionism are best served when we control our own destiny. I remain convinced that all of our people, regardless of class or creed, are best served by a local Assembly and Executive. Yes it is difficult to achieve consensus, but the collective and combined efforts of all of our people can deliver truly amazing results, and we have delivered truly amazing results in recent times.”

December marks the 100th anniversary of the election of Sir Edward Carson as the MP for the Duncairn constituency which became part of the Belfast North constituency that Nigel Dodds serves.

“The man who became the face and voice of opposition to Home Rule, and is forever remembered as a Unionist icon and leader, said it best when he said: ‘Let us take care to win all that is best among those who have been opposed to us in the past.’ Let us together continue to serve the people in the spirit of those who have gone before. The coming weeks and months will require our collective resolve.”

The audience rewarded Nigel Dodds’ speech with a chorus of ‘three cheers’.

After lunch, it was the turn former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson MP who described himself as the “warm-up act” for the DUP leader.

“Good afternoon I want to begin with a big thank you to the people of Northern Ireland who allowed me to deliver an absolutely crucial political promise. It was more than ten years ago that I was cycling along Holborn and was almost crushed by a bendy bus so long and so patently unsuited to the streets of London that I vowed there and then to get elected as Mayor just to remove it.”

His language was florid, describing Wrightbus-built New Routemaster as being “used reflexively to identify the hip modern thriving, multi-cultural and funkapolitan culture of London”.

Hopefully he didn’t spot Belfast’s shiny Purple Glider buses on his way from the airport to the Shaws Bridge … though he ad libbed about helping sell Wrighbus to Malta where, he alleged, they “jack-knifed and caught fire”.

Rumours that he’s launching a leadership bid will not be quelled by his mentions “seats made in Telford, its destination blinds from Manchester, its flooring from Lisgard, its engines from Darlington and its wheelchair ramps from Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire”.

“And whenever you see one of these noble elephant-browed beasts you are looking at a piece of Northern Ireland in London.”

He said that the DUP has been “crucial” at Westminster “because there really was a real danger, after that election in June last year, that the government of the whole UK could have been handed over to Jeremy Corbyn.”

If the DUP needed any reminders why they don’t want to switch from propping up the Tories to support a Labour government, he elaborated about the Labour leader’s “economic policies [which] would mean ruin for this country; pointlessly renationalising businesses at a cost to the taxpayer of hundreds of billions of pounds; recklessly expropriating ten per cent of the equity of companies across the land, a Labour leader who along with his putative chancellor John McDonnell actually believes that the real problem with the Venezuelan economy is that Hugo Chavez was not able to implement the entirety of his demented socialist agenda, and as if that were not bad enough, this is a man who has not only campaigned for a United Ireland but who – to the best of my knowledge – has failed to condemn the terrorist atrocities of the IRA.”

On the EU deal:

“Unless we junk this backstop, we will find that Brussels has got us exactly where they want us – a satellite state … We won’t be able to do free trade deals of any value or significance. Because they have done a very clever trick. They have made Northern Ireland their indispensable bargaining chip in the next round of negotiations … If you read the withdrawal agreement you can see that we are witnessing the birth of a new country called UK(NI) or ‘uck-ney’. UKNI is no longer exclusively ruled by London or Stormont. UKNI is in large part to be ruled by Brussels. And UKNI will have to accept large swathes of EU regulations now and in the future on a whole range of policies.

“On lawnmower noise. On the labelling of sardines. On the use of coins and tokens that may be deemed to resemble a euro. And on the use of personal recreational watercraft. And nowhere has a more illustrious history than Northern Ireland when it comes to the creation of recreational watercraft. [audience take a long time to get the Titanic reference] The Titanic springs to mind. And now is the time to point out the iceberg ahead … So if a Northern Irish inventor comes up with a personal recreational watercraft that is perfectly safe, but in some way revolutionary, a Northern Irish pedalo or paddleboard that threatens to demolish the competitors in Germany, Italy, or wherever, then it will be all too likely – as we saw with James Dyson and his hairdryers – that they will legislate in such a way as to ban that UK invention, not just for sale in the remainder of the EU, but they will ban it for sale in Northern Ireland too.”

The risk is that if the UK wanted to do free trade deals or cut tariffs or vary our regulation, “we would have to leave Northern Ireland behind as an economic semi-colony of the EU”.

He added: “No British Conservative government could or should sign up to anything of the kind and so our answer at the moment is rather desperately to make sure the whole UK stays in the backstop.”

Johnson said that “under this Conservative government we are putting in record levels of infrastructure investment. We are putting in the roads, the rail, the housing, the bridges and the power stations that will give business the platform for growth and investment.

“And now is the time to progress the admirable suggestions of Professor Alan Dunlop of Liverpool University – I think I saw my friend Karen Bradley supporting him last night – and develop plans for a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland [huge cheers] – as you in the DUP have correctly been urging. It is a far shorter distance than that covered by some bridges these days – look at Shanghai to Ningbo. The problem is not the undersea Beaufort’s dyke or lack of funds.

“The problem is political will – and we need strong regional government to drive such projects. And I therefore hope that Stormont can be revived as fast as possible as a champion of investment in NI. You need regional I know there are difficulties, compromises to be made. But I hope it can happen. No one can doubt the DUP for chiselling money out of the Treasury. As a former Mayor I like your style!”

He shifted from infrastructure to the creative culture and media industries.

“Which was the biggest grossing movie last year? Star Wars. And where does George Lucas propose to make a follow up about Obi Wan Kenobi. Northern Ireland. But what is the name of the weapon wielded by Obi Wan. The glowing throbbing enigmatic thing. A light sabre. And where did they make the first light sabre? Where was the light sabre born? The light sabre was first created in my own constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip. So take the scenic splendour and cinematic expertise of Northern Ireland, add that to the sheer raw inventiveness of Uxbridge, and you have the creative genius of the United Kingdom.

Johnson finished his speech with a local reference:

“And in the words of that great Northern Irish singer Van Morrison, it is time we all moved from the dark end of the street to the bright side of the road, if I’ve got that right.”

Arlene Foster was warmly welcomed to the stage. Her speech is reproduced in full.

“I am both humbled and privileged to stand before you today as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. We live in momentous times but throughout it all I am mindful of the support and the work of those of you in the hall, and indeed those of you who are supporters watching at home. Today I say a heartfelt thank you to the members, friends and supporters of the party for all that you have done over the last twelve months.

“Ultimately politics is about serving the interests of the people and shaping the future for the benefit of everyone. That must be our guiding principle. Now of course I want to add my personal welcome to Boris for joining with us and addressing our conference. Thank you so much. And I also want to put on record my appreciation to the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, for speaking at our conference dinner last evening. The DUP has, and will continue, to work with a range of Parliamentarians on the national stage to further the national interest.

“I am delighted that a delegation from Gibraltar who have travelled to participate in our conference this weekend. And it is fitting that we launched our Friends of Gibraltar grouping earlier on. I had the pleasure of paying a wonderful visit to Gibraltar in September and meeting with the Chief Minister Fabian Picardo. Conference, I was enthused by the passion and the pride the people of Gibraltar have for their home and their Britishness. We understand that passion and pride and today, conference, we stand with the people and the government of Gibraltar at this difficult time.

“Now we are fortunate to have Mr Johnson with us this afternoon. He has strong electoral appeal, possesses youth and energy and has a big political future … no not you, Boris but Councillor Peter Johnston, our newly elected representative in Carrickfergus. Let me again congratulate Peter and the East Antrim team on the by-election victory. We were all delighted when Peter gained an extra seat for the party taking what had been an independent seat and pushing the DUP vote share in the area up by 12%, with a 40% first preference advantage over the nearest rival candidate.

“And Peter is not our only new addition at Council level. I also want to offer a very warm DUP welcome to Alderman Sharon McKillop from Causeway Coast and Glens Council. Sharon has this week has left the TUV and joined the Democratic Unionist Party and we’re delighted to have you here today. Sharon recognises that it is this party that delivers for the people and it is this party that has the plan for the future.”

She acknowledged the press and public interest in the DUP.

“Today we meet at a time of unprecedented interest in our party. The Brexit negotiation is the current dominant political issue and I want to thank all those colleagues who are involved in that on-going work. I want to express my gratitude in particular to Nigel for his leadership at Westminster, and indeed I want to thank all of our Parliamentary team for the work that they do.

“At this point, I also want to take a moment to say a special thank you for the work that our Member of the European Parliament, Diane Dodds has undertaken. By the time of the United Kingdom’s departure Diane will have been an advocate for Northern Ireland in Europe for a decade. I know that like me you appreciate Diane’s hard work and dedication on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland.

“Diane occasionally likes to remind us all that it was she who joined the party first, and later persuaded Nigel to join. For that alone, I am eternally grateful! After her election in 2009 Diane established a public facing European office, and her hard work and results for constituents were subsequently rewarded at the ballot box. Diane has provided an unparalleled service to the people of Northern Ireland and I know that Diane will continue to play an important role in the years to come.”

[There is speculation that Diane Dodds will replace David Simpson as the party’s candidate in Upper Bann at the next General Election.]

On RHI, Arlene Foster went much further in terms of apologising than her statements to and appearances in front of the public inquiry.

“Conference, we stand at a crucial moment in the affairs of our nation. Our party has been entrusted with great responsibility as a result of the votes of people across Northern Ireland. With that responsibility comes a greater focus on our party than we have ever known before. People are interested to know our policy positions on a range of issues and more than ever the views of our party representatives are sought. So we must say what we mean and mean what we say.

“Today at the outset I want to publicly address the issue of the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme and our handling of it during our time in government. This has been a very difficult period for our party in particular and for Northern Ireland politics as a whole. My motivation in government was always to do the right thing at the right time and for the right reasons.

“But the best of intentions doesn’t make you immune from mistakes or misjudgements. Some of our past decisions and actions have left a lot to be desired, and I know that they have personally hurt and offended many of our members, voters and the public.

“The public inquiry has been difficult for many individually and painful for the party collectively. No party would want to have all of its dealings exposed for all to see at a public inquiry, especially in the unique system of government we have, with the struggles and strains required to make it work. But I make no excuses.

“Today as leader of the party I apologise. [applause] As a party we are deeply, deeply sorry for the mistakes we made, and for the things we got wrong during that period. And I am determined our Party will learn the lessons from the RHI and how Government business was conducted at Stormont more generally.

“Now there are many lessons to learn, such as ensuring that we have the best people appointed to Ministerial office and that all our representatives are clear on what is required of them. Lessons about Special Advisers, how we appoint special advisers, the number required and how they operate and are regulated in government.

“Lessons for the Civil Service. There is a strong case for a fundamental appraisal of the Northern Ireland Civil Service and consideration of extending the Home Civil Service to Northern Ireland. With technology, increasing complexity and the emergence of new approaches particularly those which intersect with the private sector, greater expertise is going to be required.

“We also have lessons about openness and transparency. Proper records must be kept and we must recognise that greater transparency will add value to public debate.

“But you know simply changing processes and procedures will not be enough. We must go further and ensure that we are engaged in an on-going process of renewal and self-examination. We will work hard to make amends and regain the support and trust of those who were upset by what they saw unfolding over this last number of months.”

The party leader also addressed the actions of some of the party’s elected representatives.

“I know I speak for many when I say that over the course of the last twelve months there have been a number of other areas where our behaviour in our ranks has not matched the standards expected of people holding public office. So we must ensure there is no repeat of such behaviour and that those high standards we aspire to ourselves and that others rightly require of us are applicable at every level within this party.

“While mistakes were made, there were many decisions taken by Ministers from this party and other parties that we can be proud of and which ensured Northern Ireland kept moving in the right direction.

“Record levels of inward investment. Billions invested in new roads, new schools and new hospitals. But of course much more remains to be done. Our country and our people deserve a stable government that will focus on taking decisions to make a real and meaningful difference to the lives of people up and down our country.”

Turning to the Union …

“Conference, as we look to the future, the Union is the best political, social, economic and cultural foundation to lay for the next generation. Why do I say that? Because through our Union with Great Britain we can contribute to and benefit from being a constituent part of one of the oldest democracies.

“We can contribute to and benefit from public services and safety nets many other countries cannot match. For example, our fantastic National Health Service. We can contribute to and have the protection of one of the largest economies in the world. We can contribute to and benefit from a cultural wealth, the envy of the rest of the globe.

“All this was achieved not by one constituent part of the UK alone but by the efforts and talents of all of them. All this was achieved through our common bond, the Union. When we look back over our proud history and our common struggles, we see what we achieved was because we did it together as a United Kingdom. This is what shapes our vision for leaving the European Union.”

On Brexit …

“Our commitment to the principles of democracy means we must implement the referendum result of 2016 – a national referendum with a national outcome. Our commitment to the common good for all parts of the United Kingdom means we must leave as one nation and that we must work collectively to make it a success. Our common history teaches us that the United Kingdom has and will continue to be a global success. We’ve done it before and can do so again.

“Two years ago at Conference I outlined five simple principles that would guide us in Brexit discussions, and stated that talks would be tough –seems like a bit of an understatement now I have to say – but in particular, I said that the economic and social benefits for Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom are far more important than our relationship with the European Union and that we would work with whomever in order to get the best deal for Northern Ireland at home and abroad.

“Consistently we have indicated our objectives and our bottom line. They were simple, they were clear and they were focused. We sought to do what was best for the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland in particular. We sought to provide the government with the room it needed to negotiate but never to lose sight of what it needed to deliver.

“And most importantly we publicly and privately indicated that we could not support proposals that would open the possibility of divergence in either customs or regulatory measures between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Our message was clear and it was consistent.

“Conference, I do want to acknowledge the hard work and determined efforts of the Prime Minister to secure an agreement. I believe she is genuine when she says she wants to see an outcome that does no harm to the Union and the internal market of the United Kingdom. However, this draft agreement fails her own key commitments.

“The Prime Minister has not been able to guarantee an outcome that eliminates the risk of the introduction of the so-called backstop arrangements. Now on the one hand, we are told the backstop would be the best of both worlds and on the other we are told we are not going to need the backstop. Ladies and gentlemen therein lies one of the many contradictions at the heart of this draft Withdrawal Agreement. In such circumstances, Northern Ireland alone would be aligned to numerous EU single market regulations while Great Britain would not. Such a scenario in the medium term would inevitability lead to barriers to trade within the UK internal market.

“Let me be very clear, that is not in the national interest. Now I know that there are many in the business community in Northern Ireland who are frustrated with the pace of negotiations and the politics around it and who simply seek certainty. I understand their position. They have been clear that they would prefer what is currently on the table rather than a no deal outcome.

“But for us we cannot wish away the fact that the draft withdrawal agreement contains arrangements that we believe are not in Northern Ireland’s long-term economic or strategic interests. Northern Ireland would remain part of the European Union’s customs code and as things stand we would be sowing the seeds of inevitable economic divergence from our largest market.

“In addition to the economic arguments of course we believe that the constitutional implications of the deal cannot be ignored. The Democratic Unionist Party has never been afraid to say yes when it is right to do so nor to say no when required. And we do not stand alone on these issues with a large number of Conservatives, both those who voted leave and remain, not persuaded.

“Even Jeremy Corbyn isn’t buying the sea border! This party wants to see a negotiated and orderly withdrawal from the European Union – that has always been our position. We are not campaigning for a no deal exit nor do we want barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and our neighbours in the Republic.

“The choice is not between this deal and no deal despite what the Government spin machine may say. The reality is that if we are to secure a better outcome than is currently on offer then the only option is to look beyond this current draft withdrawal agreement and work in the time ahead for an improved outcome.

“This party acted responsibly in the national interest to secure a government in 2017 and we will not be found wanting in our efforts to secure a better outcome. An outcome that does not leave Northern Ireland open to the perils of increased divergence away from the rest of the United Kingdom. And an outcome which truly works to the benefit of all parts of this nation.

“The days and weeks ahead will be challenging. We will continue to work in Parliament to achieve the best possible deal for Northern Ireland and the UK as a whole, guided by our principles and objectives.”

Arlene Foster spoke about deliveries as an outcome of the Confidence and Supply agreement with the Conservative Party – investment in Sure Start and City Deals for Northern Ireland – leading into remarks about the May 2019 local government election.

“Conference, we have come a long way as a party from the days when Dr Paisley and a small band of faithful men and women stepped out to form the Ulster Democratic Unionist Party. We are at the centre of political life in Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. We have the opportunity to shape the future. We must ensure we translate our vision into a reality and our Unionism must deliver to the benefit of everyone in Northern Ireland.

“That is why when the Confidence and Supply Agreement gave us the opportunity to contribute so integrally to our nation’s affairs and deliver for Northern Ireland we did so and we insisted, by the way, on delivering for everyone in Northern Ireland.

“Let me give you a few examples which are not often talked about. If you know a child or a parent who has benefited through Sure-Start or extended schools provisions, those services are being funded through the money, we secured to tackle deprivation in the Confidence and Supply Agreement. Indeed, this year, and I’m really proud of this, an additional £10m was able to be provided to improve mental health services.

“Ladies and gentlemen, delivering for the people we represent is what shapes our vision for devolution. We want to use the flexibilities that devolution provides to make Northern Ireland even better for all. Our vision does not end at the steps of Stormont.

“Our Councils have larger budgets and staff teams than some government departments, and more powers than ever before. We see their untapped potential, and that working alongside a restored Assembly and taking forward City Deals can only help drive Northern Ireland forward.

“At local government, our plan is not just for low rates and quality services but also to make a meaningful difference to our society. Next May voters will have the opportunity to elect new Councils for the next four year mandate.

“The Democratic Unionist Party will field a strong team of local government candidates that will combine youth and experience. We will offer voters the chance to return candidates to councils who will deliver quality services without over burdening the ratepayers.

“Now the eleven new councils have almost completed their first full term in office. The creation of new councils has not been without its difficulties and none more so than in the west of Northern Ireland where minority unionist communities have not been respected and where the equality agenda has done little to support Unionist culture and identity.

“As we move forward, we are determined – I am determined – to spotlight this issue and work to ensure that those who shout the loudest about respect and equality, practice what they preach.”

On a return to Stormont:

“Beyond local government, we want to see the Executive and Assembly re-established on a sustainable basis. The DUP is a pro-devolution party. Since we became the largest party of Unionism the DUP has prioritised the establishment and maintenance of a working Executive and Assembly as its core political priority. This remains unchanged.

“I am as committed to devolution today, as I was the day the institutions stopped functioning. Because influence in London or power in Belfast was never a binary choice, in fact, both working together is when we can achieve the most for Northern Ireland. Devolution is good for Northern Ireland. While securing a stable administration is challenging, local decision-making by those who live here is by far the best option.

“Throughout 2007 to 2017 the DUP persisted through every challenge. Every time there was a substantive roadblock we sought to work through each one and achieve a balanced agreement. Now there were many times when it would have been easy to walk away, but we didn’t. Throughout, the DUP understood that dealing with the problems from within an Executive and Assembly was always the better course.

“History will clearly show what we achieved in that decade was so much more than what had preceded it. The successes of the ten years of an Executive were generally characterised by the power of a series of decisions that flowed from locally accountable ministers. However we cannot disguise the fact too many of the big decisions were avoided, or started but never finished.

“It took a decade of negotiations to create a stable Executive. We now need ten years of genuine change, of transformative government. The case for change is not limited to our politics and institutions but change is required in how we work together with other parties in coalition and how that coalition works with the Civil Service.

“In any new Northern Ireland administration, and during talks that might bring one about, I want all parties to have their mandates considered and acted upon on their merits. I will encourage the full involvement of all parties capable of holding Ministerial Office, and want their contribution considered and acted upon, on its merits.”

The other Northern Ireland parties will now be looking for credible evidence of these wishes being enacted and discussed.

“The DUP will step up its engagement with the Secretary of State and with all the other parties to chart a way forward. When Stormont does return we need to demonstrate that it is with the intention of making the big decisions and that we will all operate with genuine collective responsibility.

“Clearly there needs to be more certainty that the institutions will be robust and withstand political pressure. And a Northern Ireland Executive should be established on the basis of a concise agreed coalition plan for government. Such an agreement needs to address the fundamentals of our NHS and education system.

“In education we must ensure more funding is targeted at the classrooms and that where necessary we do not shy away from taking difficult decisions if that is in the best interest of pupils and staff. On health, we prepared more plans for reform, than actual reforms we ever implemented. Any new Executive must be on the basis of the implementation of the Bengoa report and we must ensure funding earmarked for health goes to health.”

A potential fudge – a ‘cultural deal’ – for resolving the otherwise unmentioned deadlock around the Irish Language was mooted.

“We must be conscious that there is a lack of cultural security for primarily for Unionists but also for others. We need a new Cultural Deal for everyone in Northern Ireland that respects difference and fosters understanding. Because it is in Unionism’s interests for those from all backgrounds to feel comfortable in a Northern Ireland at peace with itself. The result will be a Northern Ireland with effective functioning devolved government, making a tangible difference to people’s lives.”

Arlene Foster concluded her speech.

“As the largest party of Unionism and the party of Northern Ireland, the mantle for change and delivery naturally falls at our feet. We have never shirked the opportunity to lead before and we will not do so now. The size, the breadth and depth of our team set us apart and give us confidence that we can rise to the challenges that lie ahead.

“We have much work to do in the year ahead. Any successful political party wants the fullest possible range of voters and potential voters, and our broader responsibility to Unionism must guide our behaviour. Supporters of the union – and I’m looking out at you all – come in all shapes and sizes. We always need to be seeking to attract the maximum number of voters to the unionist cause.

“Our overarching strategic task is to sell the benefits of the Union and persuade a new generation of our people that it is a Union that works for them as it has for us. We have the vision, the plan and the team to deliver for Northern Ireland. Now is the time to learn the lessons from the past, look forward to the future and shape it with confidence and determination.

“I stand here believing that with our Westminster team, with our Assembly team, with our councillors and with each and every one of you that we can achieve it all, for the people, for the country, and for the Union. Let us keep focused as we lead. Let us never lose sight that we have a historic responsibility to lay solid foundations for the next generation.

“Let us stand strong for Northern Ireland.”

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.