Early morning attendance at political party conferences is rarely solid, but the DUP conference kicked off in the Shaws Bridge Crowne Plaza with particularly low numbers in the hall as seven of the ten MPs took to the stage highlight party policies on the economy, healthcare, broadcasting and unionism itself.
(North Antrim’s Ian Paisley and Upper Bann’s David Simpson were keeping a lower profile, but both in attendance; East Antrim’s Sammy Wilson possibly overcame a flat battery to make it to conference by lunchtime, but missed his slot on an earlier panel; the whipless MLA Jim Wells was also in attendance.)
One attendee who arrived in time for the start was a member of the Ulster Unionist Party. She told me that her own party was disappointing, and she was considering switching her vote to a party that was giving a larger voice to unionism. Bad news for incoming leader Steve Aiken, but perhaps some welcome relief for the DUP whose message included multiple references to ‘next generation unionism’, perhaps a recognition that the battering they’re expected to take over some unwholesome aspects of RHI against a bleak backdrop of Brexit negotiations and deals.
The days of Union Flags being left on delegates’ seats to be waved with proud fervour during the leaders’ speech now seem to be over. Shouts of “for she’s a jolly good fellow” have also been banished, along with Willie McCrea’s singing from the front. The conference is now more sober in its organisation, as is the mood.
The elephant in the room seemed to be the likely lack of longevity of Arlene Foster’s leadership of the party. If Sir Patrick Coghlin’s RHI report had come out at the beginning of the summer as many expected, the leader’s speech might well have been delivered by a new face. While applauding her speech heartily in the room, once away from the conference hall, many members openly discussed the need for change at the top of the party. They were expecting, rather than demanding it.
The conference atmosphere was muted. With the continuing absence of the NI Assembly and the Executive, there was significantly less for the party to talk about, and less to celebrate, in order to bolster party activists’ enthusiasm. Boris Johnson was a large draw in November 2018, but there was no such attraction today. Media outlets from outside these islands weren’t to be seen, and even the London press were thinner on the ground. The number of exhibitor stands was well down on the glory days when the larger La Mon Hotel floorspace used to be packed with stalls.
Despite the antics at Stormont at the beginning of the week, abortion – and same-sex marriage – were far from the lips of most senior representatives making speeches at the conference, though Arlene Foster inserted a line into her delivered speech promising to “continue to work with all those that recognise that both lives matter”. And no word of caution to loyalists whose potential for disruption if the UK’s Brexit deal damages Northern Ireland’s place in the Union.
After Lord Morrow’s welcome as party chairman, Lagan Valley MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson reminded delegates how investment from the Confidence and Supply Agreement was improving services in Northern Ireland. Statistics about health peppered the morning sessions, with support for GPs, treatment of varicose veins, mental health provision, the new HIV prevention clinic in the Belfast Health Trust, and a call during Paul Girvan’s health-focussed panel for pharmacists to perform more diagnosis on the front line to relieve pressures on GPs. But criticism of excessive waiting lists seemed less noteworthy (other than Donaldson’s reference to “an increase in GP led services which has in turn resulted in reduced waiting lists through a 50% reduction in patient numbers at hospitals”).
East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson led the economic panel and reminded delegates that “our country has been renowned for its strong and dynamic economy, its resilience and its strength”. Recent meetings with businesses underlined the “common need [of] a desperate quest for a ready-made supply of talent, a skills base that matches their sector”, a need that required the education system to prepare young people and “older people looking to reskill and those looking to return to work”.
Robinson referred to recent business disruption in Ballymena: “My colleague, Ian Paisley, worked tirelessly trying to get a solution to the Wrightbus situation and thankfully that has also been achieved. There is a lesson for us all in these situations – the world of work and business is changing. We can either help shape that change and benefit from it, or simply get dragged along by it.”
South Belfast MP Emma Little-Pengelly tackled next generation unionism and the current EU deal.
“We are battling, once again, on many fronts … On one side we have this proposal, the most fundamental internal change to our Union since the Act of Union. For it was the 1801 Act of Union which bound us together, with the guarantee of unfettered trade between all parts of the United Kingdom. It is our single market and customs union created by the Act of Union which is now being offered as a sacrifice for the protection of the European Unions. A hard border in the Irish Sea will never be acceptable, severing Northern Ireland economically from our biggest market and breaking the guarantees of trading freedoms is utterly abhorrent.”
She quickly discounted Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, implicitly suggesting that working with the Tories is still the DUP’s only option. Not much of an olive branch to the Conservative Party, but a big slammed door to Labour.
“On our other side, lies the very real and present danger that is Jeremy Corbyn. We know his background. We know with whom his sympathies lie. This man is no friend of the union. Let us make no mistake… Corbyn is the greatest existential threat to our union. If Corbyn gets the keys to Number 10, our union will be in peril, not only because if he needs a majority, he will do a dirty little deal with Sturgeon and the SNP, granting them a 2nd Referendum on Scotland. We must do everything to prevent this man from ever becoming Prime Minister, the best way to achieve this is for Unionists to turn out, vote and help us prevent a Jeremy Corbyn Government.”
Pengelly’s speech included a moment of rare party self-reflection:
“… we have challenges. Some of those challenges we face are beyond our control. Yet, we must take them on. Admittedly, too often, some of these challenges are of our own making. We must reflect, we must do better. Our opponents attempt to demonise us – part of our challenge will be to ensure we do not make it easy for them. Perhaps, too often, we play into our enemies’ hands. I know that we are not a party of hate, or bigotry, or backwardness. I know we are a party of passion and compassion.”
The DUP delegate conference brochure referred to how Northern Ireland is changing: “The composition of society is different. Demographics have changed. We have migrant communities. The role of women has transformed. The influence of the Church across society is diminished … Young people seem increasingly disengaged from issues such as politics and their national identity.”
The South Belfast MP’s speech also recognised shifting public opinion and demographics.
“Too many of our young people care nothing for the Union. We are losing too many of our young people from traditionally unionist families, we cannot take them for granted. Others have lost faith or lost their passion for the Union, some do not vote, some do not see the value in doing so. Some new communities do not yet know of unionism. Some traditional non-unionist families and ‘others’ can be persuaded. Next Generation Unionism must reach out to all of these groups. We must become the champions of the Union. We must recognise that unionists can, do and must in the future, come from all communities.
We can win their support by being inclusive, welcoming, forward-looking.”
And the topic was raised again in the speeches by Nigel Dodds and Arlene Foster.
“Whilst today we think of ITV, Sky and BBC as broadcasters, will those outlets even exist in a
few years’ time? Whilst guarding the future and ensuring we have laws that are fit for purpose, who is holding Google, Facebook and YouTube to account? These monoliths are in our homes. They wield such power but what if one day these broadcasters decide that our opinions don’t fit? They start to censure us because our views don’t fit with their world view?”
While these early remarks mentioned a range of providers in the broadcasting ecosystem, the bulk of his comments dissected the Beeb. He accused the broadcaster of “robbing local newspapers of young journalists”. [Ed – bet some of his party colleagues wish that Sam McBride had been picked up before writing his RHI book!]
The answer to his questions about transparency and independent production companies run by BBC staff boiled down to his belief that “the organisation must be compelled to cooperate with freedom of information legislation; it is living in the dark ages due to a general opt out”. But with a PSB review in the offing, and increased discussion at Westminster and in the press about alternatives funding models that could replace the licence fee, Campbell offered few concrete suggestions.
Mark Littlewood from the Institute for Economic Affairs followed on from Campbell, backing up his case for reform.
After lunch, the deputy leader and party leader delivered their keynote addresses to a hall that had filled up with most of its 350 seats taken.
Nigel Dodds said: “The real test of any political party is not simply when times are good, but in the face of adversity, the true grit of leadership shines through. Under your leadership Arlene, this party stands strong as the guardians of our precious Union. You have shown this party will not be browbeaten or found wanting when it comes to protecting what we hold dear. Underestimate the DUP at your peril.”
He praised the party’s local government results “with more votes and more seats than any other party” and commenting the European Election result which saw his wife Diane elected “first … with the DUP increasing its vote whilst others including Sinn Féin saw their vote share fall back”.
The North Belfast MP reminded conference that the party had rejected Theresa May’s deal and “rightly rejected the Backstop, rightly rejected being locked into an EU straitjacket, rightly rejected a border down the Irish Sea”, adding “today, conference, we stand by our principles”.
He characterised the result of the most recent negotiations: “in fairness to the Prime Minister, neither he, nor the Brexit Secretary seems to know what on earth they negotiated.”
“So here is a summary for them: Northern Ireland forced to apply the European Union Customs Code; businesses sending goods to N Ireland forced to fill in customs declarations; forced to pay EU tariffs on some classes of goods; physical checks applied.
“And as for goods travelling to the rest of the United Kingdom they are subject to exit declarations (or in the words of the Brexit Secretary targeted administrative interventions). This could cost between £15 and £56 a time according to their own impact assessment document. This is not the best of both worlds; I wish it were. This is the worst of all worlds.”
“Take back control has been the Prime Minister’s mantra, but yet he proposes to give the European Union a veto over the internal customs arrangements of the United Kingdom through the Joint Committee.”
Dodds’ message to the Prime Minister:
“Today I give clear notice that going forward the Democratic Unionist Party will look at every proposal, every legislative provision, and every amendment through one prism and one prism only. How does this best protect the Union? Some would say yes to anything… some would say no to everything… the DUP does what is right for Northern Ireland.”
Reflecting on the effect of Brexit on the island of Ireland, the deputy leader said:
“There can be no doubting that the events of the past three years have placed immense pressures on relations across these islands, on businesses and communities. That is why any Brexit Deal cannot erect new barriers. We need our people to come together, not create more division.”
“We have fought, and won two elections, we have continued to strive to get a sensible Brexit deal; the United Kingdom has a new Prime Minister, and rather than have Boris with us today we have had to send him to the naughty step in Parliament twice in the last week!”
She said that “our Democratic Unionist family is at its best when we work together in common cause and pursuit of the goals that bind us together: our love of Northern Ireland; our determination to serve the people; and our desire to shape a future within the United Kingdom for the benefit of everyone.”
“We meet at a time of momentous significance. I believe that future generations will look back and recognise these days as a defining time, where the choices we made shaped their future. In that context the voters of Northern Ireland have placed great responsibility on the shoulders of this party. They have trusted us to do what is in the best interests of Northern Ireland and to exercise that responsibility in a manner that is beneficial for all.”
The leader also celebrated success at the local government election where they “increased our vote share, with an extra 19,000 votes and returned 122 councillors”.
“I am immensely proud that we are the only party with female representation in every single council chamber in Northern Ireland.”
Referencing Sinn Féin, Foster said:
“Whether in local Council chambers, London or Brussels it is the Democratic Unionist Party that is at the centre of the debate. Sinn Féin claim to be shaping the debate but in truth they have been reduced to glorified lobbyists posing for pictures to post on Twitter. Never before has a small regional party carried so much responsibility in Parliament in particular.”
Turning to the Confidence and Supply deal, she listed health and educational projects which will benefit from the injection of cash.
“For those of you have still can’t watch YouTube without that frustrating ‘buffering’ notice – I have good news. £150m from the Confidence and Supply Agreement is being used to transform rural broadband. The tender is out. Faster broadband is on its way …
“Mary Lou and Michelle blame the Confidence and Supply Agreement for blocking the Northern Ireland Assembly yet the constituencies impacted most by the broadband money have Sinn Fein MPs. Indeed of over 450 schools receiving funding from the one billion pounds, over thirty of those schools received funding to help them teach the Irish language. Whilst others talk and tweet, the DUP delivers. We have used our ten votes to help everyone.
“This conference has a message for Connolly House: stop making excuses, stop boycotting, get back to work.”
“We will not give support to the Government when we believe they are fundamentally wrong and acting in a way that is detrimental to Northern Ireland and taking us in the wrong direction. We will oppose them and we will use our votes to defeat them.
“Let me say clearly from this platform today that we want to support a deal that works for the whole of the United Kingdom and which does not leave Northern Ireland behind. But without change, we will not vote for the Prime Minister’s agreement.
Foster set a red line for any potential support for a revised deal:
“We have been clear and honest with the Government throughout this process and we expect the same in return. The customs and consent arrangements must be revisited and a one-nation approach adopted.”
“The East-West checks as proposed would lead to excessively bureaucratic burdens for trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and consequentially higher prices and less choice for consumers. We trade far more with Great Britain than we do with the Republic of Ireland, European Union and rest of the world combined. Yet the proposals put forward would see our east-west trade subject to the rules of the EU Customs Union, notwithstanding that Northern Ireland would remain part of the UK customs territory. We do not consider the proposals to be in Northern Ireland’s longer-term interests, and they are clearly without support within unionism.
“Last Saturday and on Tuesday evening it was the votes of the DUP that altered the course of events. Our votes mattered and our votes will matter in the coming days. We will continue to work to shape a solution in Northern Ireland’s interests, and we will judge each situation against what is best for Northern Ireland economically and constitutionally within the Union.”
The DUP leader assured members that “this party is ready for any General Election that may come” but added “make no mistake this will be the most unpredictable election outcome in the United Kingdom for a generation”.
The new strategy around Next Generation Unionism got another outing in what became an underlying theme of the conference:
“Modern day Northern Ireland has changed markedly and will continue to change. Today we are launching a detailed document on Next Generation Unionism and I look forward to engaging with everyone who values Northern Ireland’s position, about our paper and the issues it explores.
“I have written to a number of other parties in an effort to engage individually with them around it too, and a first meeting is already in place for Monday. I will seek to stimulate interest amongst other groups and sectors too. We want these engagements to extend far beyond political parties. It ought to be a much broader discussion across the community. It’s time to commence a conversation; recognising politicians don’t have all the answers.
“Unionism should be inclusive, welcoming and embracing to all. It should permit individuals to express the cultural life they choose. Whilst many focus on Ulster-Scots and Unionism, let me be clear, it is not incompatible to be an Irish language speaker and a Unionist – indeed there might even be one or two here today. [The conference camera panned to the audience, showing a giggling Gregory Campbell]
“And because the backgrounds of Unionists are many and varied, Unionism should have many portals, and multiple gateways in. The inescapable fact remains that people value Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom for a wide range of economic, social, historic and cultural reasons. Culture can play a big part in our identity and who we are. Too often though in Northern Ireland culture has been demeaned and demonised, or proven detrimental to progress here.
“Northern Ireland is rich in different cultures, and we need to embrace and cherish them in a manner that threatens no one. Those who seek to engage in a cultural war engage in a zero-sum battle. Northern Ireland is big enough to accommodate everyone’s culture. Indeed as unionists, it is in our long-term strategic interests to ensure that everyone, regardless of their culture, feels at home in Northern Ireland.
“That is why in the talks with other Northern Ireland parties we have proposed principles around cultural expression and identity that can harness and develop all that is good about these pursuits. And we must use them as a force for good to educate, and help give people confidence and develop as individuals. We are so much more than two traditions in Northern Ireland now, and we need to give our new identities space to grow and prosper too.”
Foster called Northern Ireland’s centenary as “an opportunity to promote all that is good about where we live”.
“There should be a broad range of events so there is something for everyone of every background. It should be an opportunity for Invest NI and indeed Westminster’s Department for International Trade to promote investment in Northern Ireland, and similarly for Tourism NI to reap rich rewards. We want to see a Fund established for Centenary events, and have proposed a Centennial Expo to showcase all Northern Ireland can offer. A Homecoming event ought to be pursued as well as other initiatives involving the Northern Ireland diaspora around the world.
“Materials and resources should be developed for schools and youth engagement, and the story of the establishment of the Northern Ireland state should be told. However important our history though, the future is much more so. Looking back at previous generations may be interesting but our duty and our responsibility is to look forward to the next generations.
“We must leave the next generation a better Northern Ireland than the one we inherited. We all need to get Northern Ireland moving again. We need to ensure that in the place we all call home we have decent jobs, real opportunities for our young people, an education system that leaves no child behind and a reformed health service that is able to deliver best in class services.
“And we want to rekindle a generosity of spirit that has been missing for some time. We want to reach out and help our friends and neighbours, value the contribution of older citizens, help the more vulnerable in society and importantly value the sanctity of life.”
The leader emphasised that the DUP “will continue to work with all those that recognise that both lives matter.”
“Where there is diversity and difference of view we should not hide from it, nor fear it, but we must debate and seek to persuade in a spirit of respect and understanding for the other point of view. Rightly there will be many policy areas where we will differ from others and sometimes fundamentally so, but we can do that in an honest and gracious manner.
“People are proud of where they come from. Proud of Belfast, and of Northern Ireland. Of Game of Thrones and our tourism offer, and the cruise ships which come to visit. But they know that a Northern Ireland Government is required. To have a better healthcare system, really get to grips with the organised gangs and criminality, and to offer the best job prospects for our young people.
“Too many fear the peace process has stalled and that we are heading in the wrong direction. Taking decisions locally undoubtedly helps with the bread and butter issues, but it also provides vital stability. It bolsters the peace and strengthens relations. And that’s good for Northern Ireland.
“I want to see the Assembly and Executive rejuvenated and re-energised. We are up for that. We know that Northern Ireland works best when we work together. And to get a deal to bring Stormont back, there will need to be an agreement that we all can support.”
“I’ve already committed more than two years ago to seek accommodation and to legislate in a balanced way for language and culture, including for the Irish language. Unfortunately we have had too many painful experiences of the manner in which Councils particularly in the West have sought to implement Irish language policies.
“But we recognise there are many in Northern Ireland who love the Irish language and for whom it is an intrinsic part of who they are. So, my offer stands. If we can find a way to craft language and culture laws that facilitates those who speak the language, but does not inappropriately infringe on or threaten others, the DUP will not be found wanting.
“But overall agreement needs to be a two-way street. In particular, the DUP wants to see mechanisms to cultivate and grow relationships between Northern Ireland and Great Britain through all walks of life, including educational and cultural connections. And if Stormont is to be restored on a long-term basis that means sharing the responsibility of a fair deal. No winners or losers, everyone putting their best foot forward to provide a brighter future for all.
“Others may seek to put obstacles in the way, but the DUP will continue to try to find a way to secure agreement. When I became leader in December 2015, I said that I wanted this Party to be a party of ideas not ideology. I am therefore delighted that as a Party we are undertaking a much more comprehensive policy development programme than ever before, ranging from the environment to childcare, mental health, services for veterans, House of Lords reform, productivity and skills.”
On health and education:
“We have a comprehensive agenda for Government that we want to see delivered. Making communities stronger, streets safer and rewarding hard work. Providing better jobs and family incomes, a healthier environment and landscape, taking pride in Northern Ireland.
And doing our politics so much better.
“Within health, the Bengoa reforms need to be fully implemented with some elements sitting ready to go, just waiting on the appointment of a Minister. We are supportive of transformation being clinically-led and driven, with the benefits of technology and data maximised. We stand by our commitment for an additional one billion pounds to be invested in health by the end of the Assembly term, and that resources should be prioritised in primary care.
“In education we want a level playing field so all schools are treated equally. A Reform Fund should assist area-based changes, and more money must go directly to the classroom. We support more shared education, leading ultimately to a single system. Sectors need to set aside their own interests and recognise the benefit for society in children being educated together.
“We want to see a fundamental review of how schools are managed, much like the Bengoa approach in Health, which would incorporate the effectiveness and performance of the Education Authority and other bodies. Too many parents and teachers are at their wits end with the basics of our education system. The Education and Training Inspectorate should be re-orientated into a Northern Ireland Educational Improvement Service, and a Commission established to make recommendations on improving the outcomes of boys from disadvantaged backgrounds particularly in the inner city.”
Foster’s speech concluded:
“Northern Ireland has great potential. Its people have great potential. We will never resile from our belief that Northern Ireland is best served by being part of the UK, but unionism is about all of us and not anyone alone. It is about everyone working together as one, for the greater good, to build a Northern Ireland we can all be proud of.
“We have much to do in the months ahead. The challenge is great, but the determination is greater. This party has always risen to the task, we have always led from the front and with the support of the people we will do so again. Let us move forward with humility as we discharge our responsibilities, but confident and determined in what we can achieve together for the future, and for the generations that will follow us. Now more than ever let us stand strong for Northern Ireland.”
I couldn’t find the UUP member at the end to ask her whether her vote had been won over by the DUP. Would she have felt welcomed by the reaching out rhetoric that echoed the sentiment of some of Peter Robinson’s old speeches? Or would she have realised that like her own party, the DUP is also on the verge of flux?
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.