DUP: Standing strong for Northern Ireland
There was a sense of public restraint around the DUP annual party conference. Having felt the intense glare of the national media spotlight in the run up to what was to be their deal with the Conservative party, the DUP appeared cautious not to provide any ammunition for extra scrutiny to those in the UK unfamiliar with their custom.
UK interest was undoubtedly the catalyst for some subtle changes, which included the postponement of leader Arlene Foster’s speech to the final slot of the day and the perceived relegation of usual member-rousing speeches by Sammy Wilson and Gregory Campbell to panel discussions.
In the end, the media frenzy of UK journalists flying in for the conference did not play out – potentially put off by the £150 price tag threat the DUP placed on late registration, only to later waive the fee.
Without a working Assembly, Westminster was always going to dominate the conference and the party clearly marked out its distance from the Conservative Party – highlighting its ability to leverage additional benefits for Northern Ireland and the whole of the UK.
The conference took place prior to the on-off-back-on-in-a-different format EU-UK deal to conclude phase one. A last-minute phonecall from Arlene Foster to Theresa May is said to have prevented the imminent sign off of the agreed deal, which would have handed Northern Ireland ‘regulatory alignment’ with the EU single market and customs union.
Theresa May had need to look no further than the speech given by MEP Diane Dodds to her party members to know where the DUP stood. “Northern Ireland’s Brexit solution will be the United Kingdom’s Brexit solution. We will leave the customs union and the single market alongside Great Britain”, she told members.
“Brexit gives Northern Ireland an opportunity to revitalise and grow our position within the UK single market.”
Likewise, director of elections Simon Hamilton had Westminster on his mind. Although mapping out that the DUP will be prepared for upcoming local council elections and any potential Assembly election, his emphasis was geared towards the DUP’s improved Westminster performance in North Down, where the party came close to toppling long-serving Independent MP Lady Sylvia Hermon. “North Down is our number one target seat for the next general election,” he outlined.
In what could be described as an alternative leader’s speech, Nigel Dodds was visibly pleased as he summarised the outworkings of the DUPs elevated position. He praised Arlene Foster’s resolve, suggested that Sinn Féin had been reduced to “carping critics” and warned that underestimating the DUP comes “at your peril”.
Talking through the general election wins and acknowledging the good fortune in the DUPs Westminster influence, he said: “A few more seats for the Conservatives and they could have ploughed on alone…had they won a fewer number of seats, even with our help they could not have secured a majority. We entered the negotiations with the guiding star of doing what was right not for the DUP, but for Northern Ireland in particular and the United Kingdom as a whole. And when the time came this party was not found wanting.”
While the DUP have voiced their desire to get the Stormont institutions operational as soon as possible, there was a clear sense that they will not rush into agreeing a deal while their Westminster position continues to prove fruitful.
“Of course, there is no pressure on us to do a deal and any agreement will have to be politically balanced, but it is in Northern Ireland’s long-term interests to have a functioning Executive,” he said. Highlighting that the current situation is not sustainable, he issued a warning to Secretary of State James Brokenshire: “None of us want to see Direct Rule introduced but we are fast approaching the moment when it will be the lesser of two evils.”
Then it fell to a warmly welcomed Arlene Foster to conclude the conference. After expressing sympathy with those MLAs who failed to be returned in the last Assembly election, she too moved onto Westminster, rebuffing allegations that the DUP would pursue a narrow agenda at Westminster: “We are the party for Northern Ireland but our unionism doesn’t end at the Irish Sea. We will always fight hard for the best deal for Northern Ireland but we care about vulnerable people in Bristol and Birmingham every bit as much as those in Belfast.”
On Brexit, she stressed the need for a “sensible Brexit” but reinforced the party line that the DUP will not support “any suggestion that Northern Ireland, unlike the rest of the UK, will have to mirror European regulations”.
Returning to local politics, there appeared to be some softening towards the Irish language stand-off with Foster stating her respect for the language and the party’s preparedness “to legislate for the Irish language in the context of legislating for the plurality of cultures that exist in Northern Ireland”.
However, this was quickly followed by criticism of Sinn Féin and republicans: “For too long they have shown nothing but disdain and disrespect for the national flag, the Royal Family, the Armed Forces, British symbols, the constitutional reality and the very name of this country.”
Concluding with a quote from CS Lewis she said: “‘You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending’. CS Lewis was right. We cannot go backwards and undo what has been done. We cannot start again from somewhere different. We have to deal with things the way they are. But that doesn’t mean the end is already written.”
Sinn Féin: Towards a United Ireland
The Sinn Féin Ard Fheis, coloured by debate around the Eighth Amendment, was almost perfunctory. I bhfábhar. In aghaidh. Tá sé glachtha. Agus arís. Most notably, delegates voted to reaffirm that any decision to enter into a coalition government in Dublin will be made by a special ard fheis. They also voted resoundingly with the Ard Comhairle’s motion supporting the repeal of the Eighth Amendment and rejected motions advocating a conscience vote on the issue.
The collective and unifying moments of republican history loomed large as expected and aides-mémoire were scattered across the RDS, from enlarged images of hunger strikers’ ballot papers to a framed photo exhibition dedicated to the late Martin McGuinness. Later in the evening, during a half hour tribute to McGuinness, Derry’s Elisha McCallion elicited a rapturous response when she proclaimed: “Martin was a proud member of the IRA.”
Meanwhile, the real spotlight was squarely focused on the presidential address as assembled columnists hungrily awaited the moment they could add the finishing flourish to their pre-prepared copy.
While he was predictably re-elected as party president, for over a week, rumours were rife that Gerry Adams would make an announcement of historic significance. In the end, these expectations were realised when he announced his stepping aside as Uachtarán Shinn Féin after 34 years. “Republicanism has never been stronger. This is our time. We will grow even stronger in the future. But leadership means knowing when it is time for change. That time is now,” he revealed.
It has long been speculated that the passing of the old guard, particularly Adams himself, could unlock a hitherto elusive segment of the floating electorate who could not bring themselves to vote for the party while it remained so firmly wedded to its militant republican origins, as personified by a man who first assumed the presidency in 1983.
Most notably for the party, the northern-axis, around which it has gravitated since the ousting of intractable southern ideologues (Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Dáithí Ó Conaill) by Adams and allies in the late-1980s, will now tilt firmly southwards (a trajectory it has followed for some years), augmented by the increased prominence of Mary Lou McDonald, who will almost certainly be the party’s first female leader since Margaret Buckley (1937-1950). The only credible challenger, Pearse Doherty, ruling himself out of the contest.
While there is no fixed timescale for the election of the next leader, Adams intends to ensure sufficient opportunity for his successor to prepare in advance of the next Dáil election. The party passed a motion to ensure that an extraordinary ard fheis is held within three months after Adams’ departure, in order facilitate a leadership election.
UUP: New unionism
In what was a relatively sombre affair, the UUPs annual conference had a very different look and feel than what had gone on the year previous. Gone was the talk of the opportunity of opposition, gone was the SDLP leader’s address around party co-operation and gone was Mike Nesbitt as leader.
In their place, perhaps best highlighting that change of Northern Ireland’s political landscape over the past 12 months, was Westminster’s Shadow Secretary of State Owen Smith and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State Chloe Smith, as well as the usual contributions from party councillors and youth representatives.
Instead, in what was his first conference address as leader, Robin Swann opted to come out fighting against successive election failures, the heaviest blow of which was the loss of their two sitting MPs at Westminster. Tom Petty’s ‘I won’t back down’ welcomed his address, which surprisingly, had little, if any, reference to the DUP, their direct competition.
Instead Swann focussed on the Irish Language Act and Sinn Féin as his targets in a bid to galvanise the party faithful.
Defiantly he opened: “It is time for us, to reassert ourselves, it is time for us to stand on our own two feet and it is time for us to stand up and say we are proud to be Ulster Unionists.”
Although Swann’s address was well delivered and well received, there was a notable lack of detailed policy direction. Instead, there was a sense that the party was still readjusting, taking a long-term approach to policy formation with the 2019 council elections as a target for their revival.
Signalling that the UUP would need to change if they are to compound criticism that the party’s future is in jeopardy, he said: “We no longer fit inside the old box, nor do we occupy the big house…I am under no illusion of the work that we need to do, and I stress we need to do, we can and we have started to rebuild, re-energise and re-connect.”
Highlighting his ambitions for a new wave of unionism, Swann stated: “It will mean that today, every single one of us – from elected representative, to grassroots activist – commits to rebuilding this party into one that can credibly challenge for a place in the Office of First Minister.
“I have said before that we are moderate people, but now is the time for us to be radical moderates… look at what the extremes have done for our country. Crisis and stalemate and talks process after talks process. I am not content just to leave them to it.”
Swann reinforced his view on Brexit: “Any deal that puts a de facto border up the middle of the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and pulls us out of the UK single market would be totally unacceptable.”
Appealing to nationalists not to refight “the battles of the past” over Brexit, Swann said that Brexit should not be used as a proxy vehicle for a united Ireland and encouraged contribution to bettering Northern Ireland.
Turning on Sinn Féin (prior to Adams announcing his intention to stand down), and affirming his support for a voluntary coalition in the absence of agreement, Swann said: “I am sick of progress in Northern Ireland being held up because one party is being swung by the tail by a TD who has no mandate in Northern Ireland.
“It is time for the institutions to move on, it is time for politics to move on, it is time for that change that allows Northern Ireland politicians to form an Executive of the willing.”
Swann hit back at claims the party had lurched to the right or become more hardline under his tenure, outlining his belief that the Irish language and an Irish Language Act were two different issues.
“It is not scaremongering to express concerns that legislation would lead to further division in society. We would no longer be reliant on flags or painted kerbstones – we would know whose territory we were in by the road signs.
“We cannot simply legislate our way out of every political disagreement. The Ulster Unionist Party is very clear that trust and respect can only be established by what we do, not by the use of polished sound bites or expertly crafted communications. Actions really do speak louder than words.”
Concluding, Swann reaffirmed his ambition to deliver a “new unionism”.