A party for all of the Union: DUP conference 2017

27 November 2017 - by Denise McAnena

Saturday’s DUP conference capped a tumultuous year in politics, one in which Stormont power-sharing ground to halt, a subsequent election reduced the party’s status as the largest in the Northern Ireland Assembly to a razor-thin, one-seat, 1200-vote majority, and a snap Westminster poll handed it the balance of power in parliament.

All such issues were referenced throughout the day-long event at the La Mon hotel. A commitment to power-sharing was underlined by successful  speakers, as was the vindication that party leader Arlene Foster had been right to warn of the electoral danger posed to unionism (now no longer the dominant Assembly bloc) by Sinn Féin.

Nevertheless, the gains made in June’s general election — specifically wins in Belfast South and South Antrim — brought the DUP closer to the levers of national government, and the centre of British discourse, than it has ever been, its 10 MPs supporting a Conservative Party whose Commons majority evaporated on 8 June.

A clear message emerged: The subsequent ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement between the DUP and the Conservatives was good not only for Northern Ireland but the UK as a whole.

Given the most recent electoral performance, the party tone was confident. During a panel discussion on the issue of promoting Northern Ireland, Lagan Valley MLA Edwin Poots talked up the region’s agri-food industry and potential for growth.

An especially resounding applause rang out when he pushed back against suggestions from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the EU  — currently growing louder as the Brexit negotiations continue apace — that a post-withdrawal customs border could be moved to the Irish Sea. He asserted that the only border would be the one already in place on the island of Ireland.

This position was further in evidence during Diane Dodds’s speech, the MEP saying “let us be clear. There will be no internal borders within the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland’s Brexit solution will be the United Kingdom’s Brexit solution.”

Other political considerations were just as evident. Christopher Stalford MLA offered a passionate defence of the health service and the Sure Start programme, pointing to the strain under which public services in his own Belfast South constituency, and beyond, are presently operating. “It is just wrong,” he said, that Sinn Féin should be delaying Executive leadership in these areas over a “cultural issue”.

Paula Bradley MLA echoed those sentiments, arguing that Northern Ireland was “uniquely placed” to build a “world-class health service” but that devolution was the best option for furthering agreed reforms, whatever additional funding is secured by the pact with the Conservatives.

Nigel Dodds MP spoke of  DUP’s general election success and its new role at Westminster, emphasising that the "deal with the Conservatives is for the entire parliament and we have started the process of determining what will bring success, security and prosperity to the UK and Northern Ireland in the second half of the Parliament.”

Interestingly he stated that while any agreement on power-sharing "will have to be politically balanced” it is "in Northern Ireland’s long-term interests to have a functioning Executive.”

There was much media comment about the atmosphere of change around the conference. This was reflected in the fact that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation hosted the only external fringe event, during which Simon Hamilton MLA shared his ambition for the draft industrial strategy launched by the Department for the Economy just before the collapse of the Executive in January.

Ashwin Kumar, the Foundation’s chief economist, challenged the DUP to use the opportunity to ensure that economic growth will benefit all of society, highlighting the overarching commitment to wellbeing in the draft Programme for Government.

In her keynote address, party leader Arlene Foster was, by turns, bullish and occasionally conciliatory. She recalled the lows of the election in March and the highs of the contest in June.

She condemned the Executive's long absence and the approach of Sinn Féin’s “heavy brigade” in the negotiations to restart the Assembly. There existed scope for a compromise around language rights, she said, under certain circumstances:

"I said back in the summer that this Party was prepared to legislate for the Irish language in the context of legislating for the plurality of cultures that exist in Northern Ireland. The Irish language is spoken and enjoyed by thousands of people in all parts of Northern Ireland… I respect the Irish language and those who speak it. However, respect isn’t a one-way street. Respect works both ways.

Mrs Foster touched also on other themes, including the oft-repeated refrain of aspirations beyond its own shores.

"We are the party for Northern Ireland but our unionism doesn't end at the Irish Sea,”she said. "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. That of course is the very essence of our unionism.”

As far as Brexit is concerned, Mrs Foster talked of the scepticism that the DUP had always had towards Brussels and criticised other member states for failing to reform the EU.

She rejected any suggestion that Northern Ireland might remain in the Customs Union and Single Market as a way of guarding against a hard border in Ireland, confirming that she had written to "each of the EU 27 member states setting out our views” and welcoming "assurances from the Prime Minister and the UK Brexit team that no such internal barriers will be countenanced and that as we joined the then European Community as one nation we will leave as one United Kingdom.”

For all its recent activity, however, the DUP’s focus on the local institutions has not been diminished. Mrs Foster called on all parties to bring a new approach to the Executive table: “If any new Executive is to be restored it must be on a sustainable basis and all parties who share that view must insist on that being the case… Northern Ireland needs a government and we cannot continue without Ministers”.

Devolution, she said, "is the best way to govern Northern Ireland."

Before ending her remarks, Mrs Foster struck a pragmatic note, quoting Belfast’s own C.S. Lewis: “You can't go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”

She concluded that Lewis was right; “We have to deal with things the way they are. But that doesn’t mean the end is already written.”