DUP marks decade on top

Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland 23rd November 2013

DUP Annual Conference at the La Mon House Hotel in Belfast.

Peter Robinson MLA, First Minister of Northern Ireland during his leaders speech.

Picture by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye. The DUP is confident about its prospects and cutting towards its critics. Peter Cheney reports on its conference, which sought to end a difficult year for the party.

Ten years as Northern Ireland’s largest party were celebrated at the DUP’s annual conference at La Mon Hotel but members also looked back at an unsteady year in the light of the flags protests. Peter Robinson noted that there is “no doubt the last year has been difficult” for the party but his job was “not to attribute blame but to offer solutions.”

Several of the problems have been of the party’s own making. In the most controversial case, Ruth Patterson was charged over her comments on facebook about the Castlederg parade.  The charge – of sending a grossly offensive electronic communication – has since been withdrawn.  Patterson has been issued with an informed warning in relation to her comments.

Patterson was at the conference along with whistle-blower Jenny Palmer. The Red Sky case, which she raised with BBC Spotlight, is now being scrutinised in detail in the Assembly.

This was undoubtedly a significant moment for members. The DUP had inched ahead of the UUP in the 2003 Assembly election, gaining 177,470 votes. Support peaked at 241,856 votes in the 2005 election and the last Assembly poll delivered 198,436 first preferences for the party.

The party’s lowest moment was the 2009 European election when Diane Dodds failed to top the poll. Dodds was strongly promoted at the conference and the party also kept up the speculation about running a second candidate. It is likely, though, that a party with the DUP’s determination would have made a decision by now. The speculation could undermine support for Jim Nicholson or encourage a pact on transfer votes. Jim Allister is another complicating factor as he attracted many disillusioned DUP voters last time round.

Nigel Dodds praised his wife’s hard work and claimed that the party was still true to its founding principles. “Republicanism has failed,” he stated. “Nationalism is struggling to keep the notion of a united Ireland on the political agenda.”

As expected, Dodds condemned nationalists and the Alliance Party for a “destructive” decision to restrict flag-flying at Belfast City Hall. The council elections were the “vehicle for change” but Dodds did not promise the return of the 365-day flag-flying policy. This would require a unionist majority at City Hall, which was last in place in 1997.

Every DUP council candidate, he announced, would sign a ‘low rates pledge’ and therefore commit to ease pressure on households. Candidates will be formally selected in January.

Progress

Roaring at times, Peter Robinson stated that the party had “come a long way in a very short space of time.” The First Minister commented: “We are now, realistically, the only serious, plausible and viable unionist party. In short, we are not simply the largest unionist party, we are the only unionist party capable of leading unionism forward.” The reference to “a few feeble and faint-hearted folk” was directed at Jim Allister and Sinn Féin was “pleased as punch” to be in Stormont.

Robinson also turned his attention to the media, claiming that every political problem was “examined in great detail and magnified beyond recognition.” A long list of achievements followed, some of which are repeated in the party’s mid-term report card (see box).

Significantly, Robinson openly criticised loyalist paramilitaries. “There must be respect not only for people’s right to express their cultural identity but also for people’s right to live in peace,” he stated. “Support for the rule of law cannot be conditional.”

Unionism, he said, was “at its best when it is open and inviting, not narrow and exclusive.” Party strategists have regularly stated that the DUP wants to attract Catholic votes but evidence of that support is limited. In every Life and Times Survey since 1998, Catholic support for unionist parties (of any type) has registered between zero and 2 per cent.

Robinson’s tone – and his pre-conference interviews – implied that he had unanimous support as leader. This is, of course, highly unlikely in any democratic party. Sammy Wilson’s usual slot was unusually dropped from the conference line-up. Among the MLAs name-dropped by Robinson, Edwin Poots received the loudest applause.

Robinson stated that the DUP was “the only party representing people in councils, our Assembly, at Westminster and in Europe.” This is true when referring to the House of Commons but the UUP still has a presence in the Lords.

The last line of his speech – “the DUP will never be defeated” – is a typical conference sound-bite and a carryover from the rhetoric of the Paisley days. All parties, though, go through the ups and downs of the electoral cycle.

Naturally, the past was a painful and very relevant theme at the conference. The party has discussed how to change the definition of victims of the Troubles since 2009 but no legislation has appeared until now. Jeffrey Donaldson tabled a Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Bill in July, which was to have received its Commons second reading on 22 November. However, the Bill is still being drafted and the debate has been put back to 17 January.

The DUP is still disciplined but knows that it needs to balance its messages to working class loyalists (often involved in flag protests) and the middle class voters who are deeply uncomfortable with the protests and their often sectarian overtone.

The report card

‘30 Achievements in First 30 Months’ contains several tangible successes of the Executive, although these have often been shared between the parties and or delivered with Westminster’s help.

The DUP can claim direct credit for real-term increases in health budget, the retention of academic selection, extended small business rates relief and co-ownership housing schemes, and low household taxes. The Economic Pact, G8 summit and investment conference were joint projects with the NIO.

Student fees have been frozen in real terms for local and Republic of Ireland students but substantially increased for those from Great Britain. The first £40 million of the Social Investment Fund has been agreed but not yet fully invested.

Local government reform is still a work in progress and will not be an achievement until the new councils are formed in 2015. This was due in 2011. Likewise, a commitment to 10 shared education projects by 2015 will only be properly achieved if 10 are set up in the next two years.

Readers can analyse the full booklet at www.dup.org.uk/publications

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