Together, we will succeed was the theme of the DUP conference in Belfast, as party figures asserted that unionist unity is the key to growth. Meanwhile, the party left the public guessing as to whether it will be returning to Stormont any time soon. Joshua Murray attended the DUP party conference in October 2023.
Party-wide frustration was evident throughout the annual gathering, but importantly for leader Jeffrey Donaldson MP, those frustrations were directed outwards. The British Government, Sinn Féin, other unionist parties, the Alliance Party, the EU, and the media were among those in the crosshairs of both party representatives and grassroots members, who were not afraid to voice their discontent with the numerous forces they believe are conspiring to stifle the kind of politics the DUP stands for.
A panel of the party’s MPs, excluding both the leader and deputy leader, appeared early in the proceedings, perhaps a nod to the pre-eminence of those operating in the functioning legislature in Westminster above the party’s MLAs. During the discussion, Upper Bann MP Carla Lockhart stated: “I believe we still have a society that still values life and believes that the most basic right is the right to life,” adding that, in the consultation which led to the passage of the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2022: “79 per cent of the respondents were opposed to abortion in Northern Ireland.” However, opinion polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of the population of Northern Ireland supports the legislation of abortion.
Other topics of note covered in the MP panel discussion included frustration with the media, led by East Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell, who said that, although he does not “have a problem with the BBC, sometimes they seem to have a problem with us”.
This sentiment was echoed by Ian Paisley MP who, when panel chair, former BBC Northern Ireland political editor Mark Devenport, brought up the fact that Paisley had attended work experience with the BBC many years ago, quipped: “I decided to change the world rather than just report on it.”
Lockhart, in her own speech, issued a rallying cry to non-DUP unionists to “come together” to give Sinn Féin “the reality check they need”. This plea was issued as Lockhart was seeking the unity of all unionist parties, attributing the party’s recent decline to Sinn Féin to division in unionism.
The theme of unionist unity, however, was somewhat lost in leader Jeffrey Donaldson MP’s speech, in which he expressed his view that there are people “on the fringes of the unionist family” who advocate direct rule that “do not have the best interests of the union at heart”.
“We have a clear mandate to resolve the issues that confront us because we have campaigned for arrangements that restore our place in the United Kingdom.”
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson MP
Donaldson, who is now entering his third year as leader of the DUP, continues to grapple with the choreography of a return to the Assembly. The prominence of MLA Emma Little-Pengelly’s speech in the running order added some fuel to speculation that she, rather than Donaldson, might lead the party’s Stormont contingent, and ultimately become the first DUP representative to serve as deputy First Minister.
The speculation of a return to Stormont will have been further fuelled by Donaldson’s statement that, long-term, the idea that direct rule is the best way to serve unionism is a “nonsense”.
Donaldson, however, whilst unironically stating that the DUP has a reputation for “saying yes”, managed to weave a web of ambiguity to keep everyone guessing, saying that “we are not afraid to say no” to a return to Stormont as discussions with the British Government about reforming the Windsor Framework “have not reached an endpoint” and “no deal is on the table”.
The main challenge for the DUP is working out how to effectively exercise its mandate afforded by its unionist electorate, which means ending what it sees as a “border in the Irish Sea”.
Donaldson said: “We have a clear mandate to resolve the issues that confront us because we have campaigned for arrangements that restore our place in the United Kingdom.”
The Lagan Valley MP also expressed his frustration at the British Government, exclaiming that he wants to see the it “step up and promote the union; it is their job to speak out and defend the union”.
This sentiment was echoed by the party’s new deputy leader, Belfast East MP Gavin Robinson, who took aim at Northern Ireland Minister of State Steve Baker MP. “The erstwhile, self-confessed agitator and 12-hour candidate for Prime Minister would be better back in the box he confessed to being released from in the summer,” uttered Robinson.
Donaldson, in a departure from his precedents, remained alone on the stage as he concluded his leader’s speech. However, the respect his colleagues hold for him was clear in the enthusiastic cheers received.
The DUP leader remains adamant that the party will “hold its nerve” in negotiations with the British Government, rendering a return to Stormont, in the short term at least, unlikely.