The DUP party conference 2016

With no impending election to contest, a Programme for Government still in draft format and a façade of harmonious cooperation with their Executive partners Sinn Féin, Arlene Foster chose to focus on Brexit and the Opposition in her first party conference as leader.

The omission of criticism – and all but mere mention – of their Executive coalition partners Sinn Féin, always meant that the DUP’s 2016 conference was going to be very different than those that have gone before it. As the fallout of Brexit threatens to overshadow any progress made by the new format of the Northern Ireland Executive, it was clear that, in her first address to the party conference as leader, Arlene Foster geared to keep the focus on local developments.

As much could be said about the issues surrounding the conference as what was discussed. In a month where the First Minister washed her hands of the failed Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, an initiative which was largely operational during her time as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment and could incur estimated costs of up to £1 billion for the next 20 years, the First Minister has also come under criticism for seeming to suggest that plans to continue to block legislation for same-sex marriage were strengthened by criticism emanating from internet trolls, something the party later denied.

However, within the conference these topics were shelved and it was the official opposition and the Irish Government which bore the brunt of Foster’s speech, in somewhat contradictory terms in places. In reference to the Opposition, Foster stated: “The Fresh Start Agreement paved the way for the creation of an official opposition at Stormont. I believe that is good for politics here and has the potential to improve the operation of government.” She added that she would like to see opposition arrangements as a fabric of the constitutional set-up, suggesting legislation within the current Assembly term to “make government and opposition the norm, not the exception”.

Praise for opposition was reserved simply for its format however, as Foster went on to criticise the workings of the UUP and SDLP, pointing out that without them “the Executive is functioning better than at any stage since the restoration of devolution in 1999”.

“There has to be more to opposition than sound-bites, sniping and smug sneers. Though I suppose we should be fair to the Opposition. They have managed two achievements. Colum has grown a beard. And they came up with the nickname ‘Marlene’ for the deputy First Minister and myself.

“Now Marlene is a popular TV character. But poor old Mike and Colum – they’re Steptoe and Son. And for younger people here, Steptoe and Son were a very odd couple. Actually, the similarities are amazing. One was an older, bitter man. The other was a frustrated, younger man. They had to live together, but they never got on and they made a living selling junk to the public.

“Since the election Mike and Colum have only been interested in one thing – themselves. No new policies for Northern Ireland, no positive contributions to our national debate, no alternative vision for where they want to take us. We saw this clearly on display at the Ulster Unionist Party conference last week, where there was a lot of talk about voting Mike and getting Colum or voting Colum and getting Mike. I’m not sure that’s a particularly appealing prospect, because either way you get weaker unionism, weaker policies and a much weaker Northern Ireland.”

In the wake of a number of defections from the UUP to the DUP in the lead up to the conference, Foster seized the moment to extend the opportunity to a wider audience. “I want to make this not just the largest unionist party, but the party for all unionism… The DUP will help shape Northern Ireland for decades to come and I say to those who want to help us in that great enterprise, ‘come and join us’.”

“Brexit represents the biggest economic opportunity for this country in decades.”

There was a notable absence of any concrete policy discussion. With the Programme for Government still to be finalised, Foster would only say: “The people of Northern Ireland expect us to deliver on our plan for a stronger Northern Ireland – and deservedly so.

“My five-point plan was not just the basis for our election campaign; it will be our guiding light for the next five years. We were elected on the basis of our five-point plan and we will deliver on it. This plan was based on what the people of Northern Ireland wanted.”

Not surprisingly, as the first female leader of the party and Northern Ireland’s first female First Minister, Foster saved special praise for “an historic day for women” at the latest Assembly election.

“I hope the men in the audience will forgive me if I say that I was absolutely delighted to see every single female candidate we put forward at the election returned at the polls. And that’s a product not of quotas or of favouritism, but of picking the right person for the job. I was also delighted with the new, young talent that has come into our Assembly group since the last election.

“This augurs well for the future. It was a remarkable and historic achievement – and it was your achievement.”

Shifting the focus to Brexit, Foster described herself as “proud” of the part they party played in the campaign and added that they “stood shoulder to shoulder with those who wanted the British people to take back control of their futures”.

“I respect those who believed that the United Kingdom’s best interests were served by remaining within the European Union, but I have no time for those who want to refight the referendum. That debate is over. Rather than talking up the challenges, we should be looking towards the opportunities.

“Brexit represents the biggest economic opportunity for this country in decades.”

The bulk of criticism was preserved for the Irish Government, despite claiming that “relations with Irish Government are probably as good as they have been at any point in our history”.

“The reality is that political instability in Dublin, and fears for their own future, are driving their decision-making at present as much as any concern about Northern Ireland.

“And while they seek to take the views of people of Northern Ireland on the issue of Brexit at home, their representatives are sent out around the world to talk down our economy and to attempt to poach our investors.

“It is clear, conference, that the one place that a hard border does exist is in the mind of the Irish Government. Well, I don’t believe in a hard border and am happy to welcome shoppers looking for a bargain from across the border anytime they want to come.”

The DUP party conference was held in La Mon Hotel & Country Club on 28-29 October, 2016.

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