Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s speech to conference (YouTube) in the Crowne Plaza Hotel in south Belfast was long and steady. (At five thousand words, it had a higher word count than any of the last six addresses by leaders to their main annual conference.)
It was subtle in how it underlined certain issues, but avoided saying anything incendiary, or taking any serious potshots at other parties. This was not a speech that intended to light any fires. Instead it was about reassurance and consolidation. Nothing the DUP leader said made it any more difficult to announce a return to Stormont.
He emphasised how the DUP’s actions and “phased withdrawal from the Executive” have had a positive impact, albeit still too small but not unimportant changes. He reminded conference delegates that people had recognised the DUP’s approach and consolidated the party’s vote. And he suggesting that the lack of a devolved government ultimately played into the hands of those wanting a unites Ireland.
The seven tests may not have been met, but the breadcrumbs are there for what the UK Government need to do as a priority to open the doors of the Executive Office and the Assembly Chamber. An East-West Conference – basically a cut-down British-Irish Council without the Irish government and without the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man – is easy to deliver. Legislation to restore and protect economic rights under Article 6 of the Acts of Union may be harder but not impossible to implement.
There was a reminder that despite the DUP being more associated with the word ‘no’, they’re keen to say ‘yes’ when the circumstances are right. Donaldson was unafraid to talk about “a shared future” and while talking up unionism was careful never to leave nationalism behind in the sentiment of his speech.
Feeling ‘together’ was definitely on the agenda as well as the podium. A warm verbal hug was extended to elected representatives, name-checking the full parliamentary team – albeit with an unfortunate quip having fluffed one name – and praising councillors, MLAs, his wise deputy, and backroom staff.
Yet at the conclusion of the speech, Donaldson stood alone on the stage while the elected members rose to applaud in the front rows. No one stormed the stage to raise his arm and punch it into the air. That’s probably the manner of the man more than any lack of love from the party. After Cheryl Brownlee’s introduction, he had emerged from the side of the stage to walk across to the podium rather than marching up the aisle to a booming anthem.
But standing there looking out at the sea of DUP faces must be a reminder to Donaldson that leading the DUP back into government – be assured, that’s the only direction of travel that’s being seriously considered, it’s just the timing that is still unknown –will require a lot more meetings and conversations and speeches to reassure everyone across the disparate wings of the party to swallow hard and jump back in ‘Together’.
And depending on the timing of the Westminster election, this could be Donaldson’s last leader’s speech, unless he seeks to extend what will be a 27 year in the House of Commons by the time of the General Election next year, or is co-opted back into the Assembly. He could yet be a transitional leader to get the party over this hump and back into Government.
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Sir Jeffrey Donaldson began his speech by thanking “our latest MLA … she represents the best of our ideals and values”.
We meet today at a time when we are watching with horror the dreadful scenes that have taken place, and are continuing, in the Middle East. The merciless murder of innocent men, women, and children by Hamas terrorists in Southern Israel and the maiming and abduction of others brought back vivid memories of similar atrocities during the darkest days of our own troubled past.
Our hearts go out to all who have suffered loss or who are living with the uncertainty of what will happen to their loved ones being held captive. They can be assured of our prayers at this time. This Party stands firmly with Israel [interrupted by applause] in exercising its right in international law to defend their people from such acts of terrorism.
We urge that in rightly seeking to destroy the infrastructure and terrorist capacity of Hamas for the heinous crimes committed against its people, Israel will take every care to avoid harming those civilians in Gaza who have deliberately been placed in harm’s way by the actions of their so-called terrorist overlords.
As William [McCrae] reminded us this morning, we are called upon to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. We believe passionately in that biblical exhortation: ‘Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God’.
Our own experience in Northern Ireland demonstrates what can be achieved in even the most intractable of conflicts. Security is vital but it is not the presence of soldiers or the building of bigger military installations that offers true peace and security. It is the absence of violence and the building of consensus that offers the way to that experience of real peace and security.
It is our fervent hope and prayer that those engaged in terror and violence will come to see the futility of those acts and embrace the principles of democracy and non-violence. Because that’s what the peace of Jerusalem will look like.
Conference, we have enjoyed a great series of speeches and panel discussions this morning. Our conference affords us the opportunity to meet together and engage on the important matters of the day, as well as having our good friends and supporters from beyond these shores join with us. We very much welcome our friends from Gibraltar and assure them that they hold a special place in our hearts.
A lot has happened politically since we last met. In May communities across our nation joined together to celebrate the Coronation of His Majesty King Charles III. Citizens of all ages and generations came together to celebrate the Coronation of the King and Queen and to lift up our voices saying “God Save the King”.
Locally we fought the council elections. Over 173,000 people cast their first preference vote for our DUP candidates, and many others transferred their votes to our candidates, ensuring that 122 DUP Councillors were elected to serve across our eleven councils.
Once again we established ourselves as the strongest voice of unionism in Northern Ireland and importantly a clear signal was sent to the Government that it is the DUP who leads for Unionism. And the nay-sayers and commentators who had once again written us off were confounded and fringe elements who contested the election were in the main rejected by the electorate. We do not take our position as the lead party of unionism for granted and we will continue to work hard to build for the future.
I want on your behalf to thank all our candidates who stood, and who day after day, knocked the doors on the campaign trail and fought for every vote in that election. We have an incredible array of talent in this Party – new faces coming through and elected for the first time, and seasoned campaigners who have earned the trust of their electorate. This blend of youth and experience offers a formidable DUP presence on every single Council across Northern Ireland.
The election results we achieved was delivered on the basis of a team effort and was made possible because of the hard work and dedication of our members across the country who canvassed doors, put up posters and worked to cover the ground. I salute all of you and thank you for all that was accomplished.
I also want to pay tribute to our Director of Elections, Gordon Lyons MLA, for his guiding hand in planning and organising our election campaign and ensuring the return of the same number of candidates as were elected during the previous mandate. Thank you Gordon.
At that election our mandate was renewed, and every DUP Councillor is pledged to seek better services with low rates and to focus on the issues that really matter to ratepayers.
But the election wasn’t just focused on Council issues however, and the wider political picture dominated the campaign. We knocked on thousands of doors and spoke to countless people. We sought a mandate to re-establish the Northern Ireland Assembly on a fair and sustainable basis by finishing the job of protecting Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom and its internal market.
And why did we receive such a resounding mandate from the Unionist people? It was because: People knew what we stood for; we campaigned on what we stood for; and we stuck by what we stood for.
By working together, in the most trying and difficult of circumstances, we secured an election result that provides us with strong foundations from which we continue to deliver for everyone in Northern Ireland. So today I want to say thank you to the tens of thousands of voters who put their faith in the DUP at the Local Council elections in May. Your support will never be taken for granted.
During the last year the burden of leadership I carry has been greatly eased as a result of the support and encouragement you have given to me. I deeply appreciate that support shown from every level of the party and from the many thousands of unionists whom I meet, and who I know stand shoulder to shoulder on the journey we are on.
It is the honour of my political lifetime to lead this party and I know that as we face the future we can do so with confidence, safe in the knowledge that, yes conference, together we will succeed. With leadership comes responsibility, and with that responsibility comes days when the challenges will be greater than others.
That is why I consider it a great blessing to have Gavin Robinson MP as my new deputy leader. Gavin is not just the Member of Parliament for East Belfast but importantly he is a man of great integrity and wisdom. He is a widely respected Parliamentarian who puts in the hard yards and never shirks from any project he is asked to undertake.
Respected throughout the Party, as well as by many across the House of Commons, he has been a constant source of encouragement and advice to his colleagues. I want to take this opportunity to publicly thank Gavin for his loyalty and support and for all the work he is doing as Deputy Leader at the present time. Thank you Gavin.
I also want to place on record my thanks to Paula Bradley who stepped down as Deputy Leader earlier in the year. Paula is with us today, and I know that Paula continues to serve our party and her constituents on Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council. Thank you for your service to our party and your community.
It is clear that we are nearing the end of this Parliament. In the next 12 months, or even before it, we will be on the campaign trail at a General Election to elect our MPs. As you heard from our Parliamentary colleagues on the panel this morning, we will be able to present a strong DUP record of achievement as we campaign for a fresh mandate in that forthcoming election.
I want to thank our Members of Parliament for their work for constituents and for the Party over the last four years. To Gavin, Sammy, Gregory, Jim, Ian, Paula and Carla, Paul sorry – we’re not that far down the road (laughter) – we pay tribute for their work representing Northern Ireland’s interest in the House of Commons.
On every occasion our team has ensured that the issues and concerns of our people were raised and our influence used as a force for the good of constituents across Northern Ireland. Particularly during the cost-of-living crisis we have been a strong unionist voice speaking up for Northern Ireland at Westminster. I also want pay tribute to the work of the DUP team in the House of Lords – Maurice, Nigel, William, Wallace, William and Peter.
They too are a cohesive and strong voice for us in the Upper House and have worked diligently to pursue the Government on the flaws on the Protocol and the Framework as well as their revising and amending work on the recent Legacy Bill which has now been enacted.
As we approach the end of the Parliament, we will continue to use our influence for Northern Ireland and to promote the case for ever greater connectivity across the United Kingdom. We will work to further develop relationships across Parliament with all those who value the Union. Whether the Conservative Party is returned to power after the next election, or Keir Starmer’s Labour Party, we will engage constructively with whoever is Prime Minister in the best interests of Northern Ireland and the whole of the United Kingdom.
In addition to our regular engagement with the Secretary of State and his team, I warmly welcome Hilary Benn’s appointment as the Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland [interrupted by applause] and we have already engaged constructively with him.
Conference, I want to put on record my deep appreciation for the work of my Assembly team during the last 12 months. They have ably assisted me in significant preparatory work as we have engaged in discussions with the Government and the other Parties across a wide range of issues that are important for everyone.
Additionally, they have been involved in important policy development work with external stakeholders, representing our party at numerous engagements and meetings as well as continuing to serve the needs of local constituents throughout the network of offices across each of their constituencies. Conference, their hard work and sacrifice for this Party will not go unnoticed or unrewarded. Thank you to our Assembly team.
Mr Chairman, we meet today at a time when all eyes are upon us. Not for the first time London, other Northern Ireland parties, and no doubt even those in Dublin will be straining to hear what is said from our proceedings. More importantly tens of thousands of unionists across Northern Ireland look to us to provide them with leadership they need and a plan that charts a course to securing a stronger Northern Ireland within the Union.
We believe in the Union and we work to promote the benefits of the Union and to secure our position within the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England – bound together in the United Kingdom is the most successful political union the world has ever seen. And we want it to remain so.
Look at the benefits delivered through our membership of the United Kingdom during the Covid-19 crisis. The wonderful staff in our local NHS who cared for those needing hospitalisation or ongoing support in the community. Delivery of the fastest roll-out of the vaccine across all parts of our country. Provision of much needed financial support for our businesses and for employees through the Furloughing Scheme as well as the payments and support for self-employed to name but a few. More recently support delivered across a range of cost-of-living measures ensured the people of Northern Ireland received the same level of support as those in the rest of the United Kingdom, something our Parliamentary team worked hard to deliver.
Colleagues, I believe in the United Kingdom because I believe it is best placed to improve the lives of all our people, because of the long-term economic strength and firepower that it brings, because of the National Health Service, and because the UK alone will preserve and protect our way of life.
To further strengthen our links, I have asked the Government to consider establishing a new East -West Council that would bring together representatives from across the United Kingdom. This would include Northern Ireland, the UK Government, and others from across our nation and its regions to meet on a regular basis to discuss and collaborate on opportunities for enhanced co-operation.
I believe that when unionism is united, we are at our strongest. This does not mean that all unionists will agree on every issue but that we can find commonality in a unity of purpose on the matters that draw us together. Where we can unite behind a shared vision and values that are open and welcoming. Wherever I travel in Northern Ireland I get one consistent message from unionists – they want their Unionist elected representatives to work together. They see that a fractured unionism cost seats, and influence.
I have repeatedly said, and I say it again that there is more that unites the unionist family than divides us. I have had regular meetings with all the other unionist parties to discuss how we can work together to achieve our objectives. But we must do more and we stand ready to play our part in greater unionist co-operation.
Too often in recent years unionism has been on the back foot in the constitutional battle with a nationalism that is already planning and preparing for the future. Now we must collectively step up our efforts in promoting the Union. Those who believe that a united Ireland is around the corner, that it is inevitable, and that Northern Ireland within the Union will cease to exist are entirely wrong.
If we make the right choices now, we can secure the Union for generations to come. But that means being prepared to face up to new realities and adapting to new circumstances.
I welcome Labour leader Keir Starmer’s comments last week that a border poll is not even on the horizon. It is a confirmation of what we already know. However, we must not simply seek to defend Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom, we must be active persuaders for the Union in both word and in deed.
Rather than wait until it is too late, now is the time to work to make sure that the conditions for a border poll are never satisfied because people here can see and experience the benefits of the Union.
Whilst the case for leaving the UK is based on economic myths and fantasy politics, our over-riding objective must always be to make Northern Ireland work, to deliver prosperity, and to thrive as a valued constituent part of the United Kingdom. Having secured our place in the Union, we can then confidently work to build cooperation with our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland based on mutual respect and shared benefit.
In addition to our opposition to the Protocol, we fought the last Assembly election on our five-point plan for Northern Ireland. That plan included building prosperity and stability which are key to securing the Union in a Northern Ireland that is changing, and where Unionism must broaden its appeal if the Union is to be protected and enhanced in the longer-term.
I have said it throughout the course of my leadership of this party -and I say it again– my unionism is an inclusive, positive and modern one. I want us to build a better Northern Ireland, not just for those who share our unionism, but for all our people. I want us to build the broadest coalition of Pro-Union support from right across the community.
Unionism should have no barriers to entry beyond a belief that Northern Ireland is best served as being an integral part of the UK. We want to make Northern Ireland a place of peace and stability and prosperity for all. But to do that the Government first has to act to undo the harm caused by the Northern Ireland Protocol and remedy the delicate political balances so devastatingly upset over the last few years.
Mr. Chairman, when I last stood here 12 months ago the UK Government had recommenced talks with the EU on the Protocol. On that occasion I said that for us, “the issue of which route is travelled – whether the talks with the EU are successful or whether the Protocol Bill at Westminster becomes law is not the dominant question. For us what is important is the destination reached.”
I further indicated that we needed an outcome that ensured our place in the United Kingdom was restored. The outcome of those UK -EU negotiations, the Windsor Framework, while undoubtedly representing progress across a number of areas, did not sufficiently deal with some of the fundamental problems at the heart of our current difficulties. And yes, it didn’t meet our seven tests.
This party, whilst welcoming progress, took our time to consult the wider public through the establishment of a consultation panel to hear the views of people throughout Northern Ireland. I want to place on record our appreciation to the Panel led by my predecessors Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster and to all those who responded with their views and concerns.
Upon careful reflection and consideration of the facts, and not the spin, we concluded that the Framework did not meet our seven tests as set out in our 2022 Assembly election manifesto. Our phased withdrawal from the Northern Ireland Executive was designed to highlight to the UK Government and the EU that they needed to address unionist concerns about the Protocol, which for too long had been ignored, and to spotlight the harm it was doing to Northern Ireland’s place in the Union.
Our view on this has not changed. Despite the misguided analysis of some, and the prejudiced commentary from others who have always cheer-led for the original Protocol, we have remained focused on our aims and objectives, determined to secure further progress at this time. Over the last two years we have shaped and influenced the debate. The DUP confronted the realities, exposed the flaws, and set a new narrative that others have been compelled to accept. Which of the Protocol cheer-leading parties would now dare to say that they support and accept the original Protocol?
Yet that was the case advanced by Sinn Fein, the SDLP and even the mighty ‘rigorous implementors’ of the Alliance Party who all got it so badly wrong.
We must never let them forget their massive misjudgements that would have condemned Northern Ireland consumers to higher prices and less choice. Throughout this period, it is this party alone which has led from the front in our determination to replace the Protocol.
It is when this Party acts, that change is brought about.
We have been able to lead and challenge because of the democratic mandates given to us by unionist voters in the last two Northern Ireland-wide elections. We have a clear mandate to take the necessary political action to resolve the issues that confront us because we have campaigned to secure arrangements that restore our place within the United Kingdom.
And let me make it clear again – new arrangements must be capable of commanding the support of Unionists as well as Nationalists. The rights of Unionists cannot be diminished, side-lined, or treated in a way that is less important than those of Nationalists.
Throughout the debates of the last number of years, we recognised the need to adopt a pragmatic approach to dealing with the customs arrangements for the movement of goods entering the EU from our territory. Unionists rightly and reasonably recognised that were they to pursue the creation of a hard customs border between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, even though that is where the international border remains, such a demand would have struck at the heart of the delicate balances that comprise the Belfast Agreement. Yet the same is the case with imposing a border down the Irish Sea and disrupting our UK internal market for British goods.
Let me again be clear to this conference, the imposition of a customs border on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and remaining within the UK Internal market, was unnecessary and unacceptable in 2019. And yes, it was unnecessary and unacceptable in 2021 when the Protocol was implemented, and Conference, it is unnecessary and unacceptable now.
It is little wonder those delicate relationships created and mapped out in the Belfast and St Andrews Agreements have been so fundamentally damaged by the Protocol. Our economic rights as British citizens that were protected under Article 6 of the Acts of Union were recklessly diminished by the Northern Ireland Protocol as confirmed all the way up to the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. As the late Lord Trimble said, this undermined the Principle of Consent and harmed our place in the Union. It is our task to repair that damage.
For our part Mr Chairman, those balances will have to be restored, and our rights respected and protected, if we are to build the truly shared future that we desire.
Our discussions with the Government continue. And today I can report that we are making progress but there remains more work to do. I am hopeful that remaining concerns can be addressed as quickly as possible. Our objectives include, restoring and future-proofing in law our Article 6 rights under the Acts of Union, thus ensuring our ability to trade freely within the UK Internal Market, and securing further measures that will strengthen Northern Ireland’s place within the Union.
The default route for goods moving from GB to NI should be through the UK’s own internal market system. And within that system, goods should move smoothly. It is simply not right that within the UK, businesses and traders who pose no risk of criminality or smuggling or disease risk should have their goods subject to physical inspections.
But Conference, there will come a point when we have to determine if the outcome of the discussions measures up to our objectives and our manifesto commitments, and whether there is a sustainable basis for moving forward.
This party has a proven track-record of saying yes, and leading from the front, when it’s right to do so. Conference, equally, we will not be afraid to say no if we conclude that what is on offer does not adequately deal with our fundamental concerns and is not in the best long-term interests of our place in the United Kingdom.
Conference, this Party will not be bullied or threatened by anyone, whomever they purport to represent. We will take our own counsel and we will take our own decisions as we always have in the past. As Unionists we will always act in the best interests of Northern Ireland and never act to undermine the Union.
Building peace and stability in Northern Ireland has been a long, and often frustrating process. It has required strong leadership to overcome the many challenges and yet today we are in a better place for having undertaken that journey. Our young people enjoy a way of life and opportunities that the ‘Troubles’ generation could only dream of. Yet, there is still further to go.
The next few years will be difficult and painful as we embark on the next part of our journey involving a re-examination of our troubled past, a legacy formed of years of misery and suffering and now one shamefully tainted by the denial of justice to those who lost their loved ones. We were right to oppose the Government’s legacy bill because we believe that the path to reconciliation is not made easier by the denial of justice.
This Party will continue to speak up for our courageous men and women who put on the uniform of the crown to protect us all from the evil of terrorism that stalked our land. And we salute their record of service and their memory.
This Party will continue to stand up for all the innocents who have suffered from those long, dark years of terrorism. And conference, this Party will continue to stand against any paramilitary terrorist organisation that seeks to justify and eulogise their heinous crimes of terror and to twist the facts of history in a way that presents them as some kind of latter-day freedom fighters. They were no such thing. They denied thousands of our citizens the freedom to live in peace. There is no political cause, whether in Gaza or in Belfast, that justifies the murder, maiming or abduction of innocent men, women, and children. Conference, our message is very clear even to others in Northern Ireland. Such violence was never justified, is never justified and those who suggest otherwise show no shame.
This weekend marks exactly 17 years since the St Andrews Agreement was reached following the multi-party talks in Scotland. In October 2006 Dr Paisley, Peter Robinson, Nigel Dodds and many other colleagues worked tirelessly to bring about a fair deal that ushered in a new era where Unionism was centre stage and where fairness and respect replaced push-over and failure.
The agreement and subsequent work cleared the way for the transfer of powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive in 2007. And that era of stable devolution laid the foundations for further peace and prosperity. It allowed us to change the image of Northern Ireland and to open our doors to the world, attracting new hi-tech businesses, many of whom have re-invested again and again.
Conference, I still believe in devolved government – this Party still believes in having locally elected representatives take decisions in the best interest of our people, all our people. But more than that if we want to make the positive case for the Union then having local institutions that succeed in delivering for everyone in Northern Ireland is an essential element in building our case.
He stood over the need for a local Assembly, hinting that its absence plays into republican myths that NI is ungovernable and needs a border poll.
We must not allow republicans to perpetuate the myth that Northern Ireland is a failed and ungovernable political entity and therefore, in their view, a divisive border poll is required. We can and must make Northern Ireland work for all its people.
To those who argue that direct rule is a better option I say this. Time and again, Westminster has imposed laws upon us that are not in tune with the needs or wishes of the people of Northern Ireland. You cannot on the one hand repeatedly condemn successive Governments for letting us down and then argue with credibility that we are better off ruled directly by those who do not really understand what makes this place tick. It’s a nonsense.
After all, the strength of the Union is in the way that it accommodates the diversity of its constituent parts and the peoples who inhabit these islands. Northern Ireland is a distinct place with its own sense of identity and values and yet we want to play our full part in our United Kingdom.
Having no say in our future will not be a recipe for success. Our system of government is far from perfect and when it returns, we must collectively dedicate ourselves to ensuring – even when it is difficult – that decisions are taken that make a real difference to the lives of the people we represent.
I entered public service to make a difference on those everyday issues – health, education, childcare, housing and pay, to name but a few. And yet as I look around it saddens me to see the state of some of our public services and the burdens placed on many of our people.
The Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive will never have all the answers nor be able to fix everything, but we want to tackle these challenges, and with fair and equitable support from the UK Government, sustainably invest for our future.
It means we must be prepared to build a better future for Northern Ireland within the Union by fixing our health service and investing £1 billion more in it. It means growing our economy and creating jobs and prosperity in the next 5 years. It means helping our working families by delivering – not just talking about – 30 hours free childcare per week. It means focusing on the needs of our kids in the classroom to prepare them for the world of work. And it means we must be prepared to take the necessary steps to build a fair, shared and united community where everyone can feel valued.
I want us to be the party of Northern Ireland and the party for Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom.
A party for all those who value a strong economy, high quality public services, opportunity and fairness for all, and a party that can once again restore a sense of stability and confidence to Northern Ireland.
A party that has its anchor secured in the mainstream of unionism and on the common ground of Northern Ireland politics.
Delivering fairly for the many, and not just the few.
Conference, we do not have the luxury of retreating to the comfort of the fringes of politics. We are ambitious for our country and for our people.
Men and women across Northern Ireland are depending on us to defend the Union.
In their thousands they know that this party is the first and the last line of defence for their cause – Our cause.
I want us to rebuild relationships that have been strained in recent times and to restore a level of confidence across the community.
But first we must ensure we prevail on the most fundamental of issues – protecting our rightful place in the Union. Then we must set about restoring the cross-community consensus that is essential for the political institutions to be re-established and for them to sustainably succeed.
We have faced many challenges in our fifty-two-year history but with unity, dedication and determination, I know that as we leave here today, we can chart a course to a new era of prosperity, stability and an enduring Northern Ireland within the Union.
Together we will succeed.
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.