The DUP held their 2019 annual conference amidst crucial Brexit votes, potential Boris betrayal and the ever lengthening Stormont absence. David Whelan attended.
Far from the hype that surrounded their 2018 annual conference, with the party riding a wave of Westminster influence and able to roll out senior Conservatives in the form of the then Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond and the Prime Minister elect Boris Johnson, the DUP’s 2019 gathering was a much more subdued affair.
Johnson’s widely peddled slogan of ‘Get Brexit Done’ could have been aptly adapted for the conference in late October to ‘get conference done’ judging by how little appetite there appeared to be to feed the gathering of hungry members.
The conference took place in the context of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the party’s one-time ally, planning to press ahead with a deal that the party opposed and prior to a general election being confirmed. Coupled with this was the view that the DUP, in an earlier concession, had u-turned on their blood red line of a border in the Irish Sea, that a return of Stormont looked as distant as ever and the expectation of heavy criticism from the imminent publishing of a report into RHI.
“Sober” was a fair assessment by one on-looker. Numbers of attendees were most definitely down, most notably in the earlier parts of the day, occupied by contributions from the cohort of Westminster MPs. Ian Paisley and David Simpson were the noticeable speaking absentees.
That a general election was imminent sooner rather than later had been clear for some time and despite the clear preference for the Westminster wing to occupy stage time over MLAs and councillors, the key speeches fell far short of any rallying calls for votes that may have been expected.
Instead, the DUP doubled down on their past achievements over their future ambitions, at least electorally.
Perhaps seeking to head off any talk of change at the top in the context of Brexit influence slipping and the likely scathing assessment of the party’s and Arlene Foster’s (Former DETI minister) handling of the renewable heat incentive, Dodds launched his speech by discussing the emergence of “the true grit of leadership” in the face of adversity.
“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 rallied.
That a wedge between the DUP and the Prime Minister had been driven, a stark contrast to the warm welcome they issued him on succeeding Theresa May, was laid bare when Dodds joked at Johnson’s expense that neither he nor the Brexit Secretary “seems to know what on earth they negotiated”.
Almost ironically, the Deputy Leader, whose party campaigned for Brexit during the referendum, then turned to borders: “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.”
Recounting the additional resources for Northern Ireland brought in via the confidence and supply agreement, Dodds pointed criticism at (but oddly did not name check) their political opponents in Sinn Féin.
“During this Parliament we have ensured that our influence is felt in every corner of this province, delivering real and meaningful investment in the lives of all of our people. Whilst others boycott their responsibilities, play dress up at the border and bang bin lids on the ground, this party delivers billions of pounds for the people of Northern Ireland,” he said.
In a similar vein, he dismissed the influence of the UUP, describing the DUP “as the guardians of the union, entrusted by the people”, adding: “it is incumbent upon this party to deliver a unionism that is fit for the next generation.”
As Deputy Leader, Dodds was the recognisable warm-up act to Foster. Where previously the two have complimented each other’s delivery, splitting areas of focus, this year there was a noticeable overlap.
The muted mood around the conference evaporated as Foster took to the stage to loud applause but a few eyebrows were raised at the choice of an exuberant entrance song in Take That’s Greatest Day. Probably overlooked were the lyrics included in the song: “Before it all ends, before we run out of time.”
That DUP influence in Westminster had waned, or was at least uncertain going forward, was not evident in Foster’s introduction as she proudly boasted of sending the Prime Minister to the “naughty step”.
Much like Dodds she chose to focus on the DUP’s role in defending the union and on the achievements of the confidence and supply deal, stating: “Whilst others talk and tweet, the DUP delivers. We have used our 10 votes to help everyone.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the one billion extra pounds for Northern Ireland shows the difference it makes when you turn up, take your seats and use your vote for the betterment of everyone in Northern Ireland.”
On Brexit, Foster said nothing new, despite the critical timing to the future of Johnson’s deal. “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,” she said before tackling the well-rehearsed topics of Dublin’s involvement, trade between the UK and Northern Ireland and Assembly approval.
Foster did say that the DUP was “ready for any General Election that may come” but far from a pre-election rallying call that we have seen in the past. The Leader quickly changed course, raising the ‘Next Generation Unionism’ discussion paper, the principles of which she had set out the previous week. The proposal is a clear reaction to growing discussion about Irish unity but also to recent legislation passed in Westminster.
“Modern day Northern Ireland has changed markedly and will continue to change,” remarked Foster. “Unionism should be inclusive, welcoming and embracing to all. It should permit individuals to express the cultural life they choose.”
Some perceived these comments to signalling a softening of the DUP position on legislating for an Irish Language Act, however, upon closer inspection Foster and the DUP hadn’t moved at all from their previously held position that any introduction of Irish language legislation would have to be wrapped in a broader package. “We have proposed principles around cultural expression and identity that can harness and develop all that is good about these pursuits,” she declared.
Foster’s talk of inclusivity also appeared to fall down in her call to fund centenary events. Choosing to ignore that any celebration of 100 years of existence of Northern Ireland will grate with Irish nationalists and republicans, who oppose the partitioning of the island of Ireland, Foster added: “There should be a broad range of events so there is something for everyone of every background.”
The DUP leader restated her desire to see an agreement reached for the restoration of Stormont, calling for a “fair deal” before concluding: “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.”