"Bin the backstop", mea culpas and solving poverty after Brexit — #DUP18

26 November 2018 - by Gráinne Walsh

With the eyes of much of the world's media on her, Arlene Foster pressed for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to abandon the agreed United Kingdom-European Union withdrawal agreement, and seek a settlement more acceptable to unionism, during the Democratic Unionist Party’s annual conference in Belfast on Saturday.

However, Foster, who was addressing the conference for the third time as leader, struck a somewhat less strident tone than the one adopted in the weeks since the UK Government’s draft deal was struck with the EU. Those proposals, roundly rejected by the DUP, make provision for Northern Ireland to remain aligned with the EU’s regulatory and customs arrangements should no other method of guarding against a post-Brexit hard border in Ireland be found.

In the wake of these measures being confirmed, Foster had questioned the future prospects of the ‘confidence and supply’ pact that sees her party’s 10 MPs support the minority Conservative government in key Commons votes. Last week, those MPs refused to back Conservative legislation in Westminster for two days in a row, a move taken as a warning to the Prime Minister. 

Dismissing the government’s claims that the process is not subject to amendment, Foster suggested that a new course could be set, even in the wake of the European Commission’s approval of the agreement yesterday, and called on May to shift from her current position. "The choice is not between this deal and no deal despite what the government spin machine may say,” she argued.

Her position was reinforced by deputy leader Nigel Dodds, the Belfast North MP’s speech criticising May for her determination to “cast aside” previously stated promises. He pointed to a depth of feeling in favour of the “precious Union” that had been underlined in the recent resignation letters of many a cabinet secretary and government minister. Securing the link between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is, he confirmed, the DUP’s “overriding objective”. He renounced the government’s plan with an appeal for the Prime Minister to “bin the backstop.”

Guest speaker and erstwhile Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson echoed that language, urging May to “junk the backstop”, something he characterised as a threat to the Union.

Later, Foster labelled the DUP a “pro-devolution party." While Brexit may be to the fore, she made sure to reference the future of Stormont, while also acknowledging the next electoral cycle — 2019’s local council contests — and impending major economic investment:

"… delivering for the people we represent is what shapes our vision for devolution. We want to use the flexibilities that devolution provides to make Northern Ireland even better for all. Our vision does not end at the steps of Stormont.

"Our councils have larger budgets and staff teams than some government departments, and more powers than ever before. We see their untapped potential, and that working alongside a restored Assembly and taking forward city deals can only help drive Northern Ireland forward.”

The former First Minister later went further. “I am as committed to devolution today, as I was the day the institutions stopped functioning,” she concluded. “Devolution is good for Northern Ireland."

This brings us neatly to the opening subject of her remarks: “Today as leader of the party I apologise. As a party we are deeply, deeply sorry for the mistakes we made, and for the things we got wrong during that period.

And with those words, Foster addressed one of the most difficult challenges faced by the DUP – the RHI Inquiry. In acknowledging that past decisions and actions “have personally hurt and offended many of our members, voters and the public” and promising to learn and apply lessons, Foster’s words were  in marked contrast to what has gone before.

Some of those lessons include ensuring that the best people are appointed to ministerial office, and the ways in which special advisers are appointed and regulated.

In discussing the issue of openness, she said that not only must proper records be kept but that “greater transparency will add value to public debate.” Interestingly, she said that there is “a strong case for a fundamental appraisal of the Northern Ireland Civil Service and consideration of extending the Home Civil Service to Northern Ireland.”

Will this be enough to shift us out of what Foster describes as “a very difficult period for our party in particular and for Northern Ireland politics as a whole”? Perhaps, but let’s wait and see.

Moving beyond the rhetoric and drama that Brexit and a one-time  Foreign Secretary brought to the conference, Diane Dodds MEP joined the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) fringe event focusing on one of the most important aspects of the government’s domestic agenda – the future Shared Prosperity Fund that will replace EU regional and structural funding.  

As part of its Solving Poverty After Brexit series, JRF has outlined its thinking on how we can ensure that future investment promotes inclusive growth and enables places to respond flexibly to local priorities in Designing the UK Shared Prosperity Fund.

Acknowledging the DUP’s “very real impact on welfare mitigation,” the Foundation’s CEO, Campbell Robb, opened the session, stating that a future fund needs to be secure, devolved, targeted and go beyond the Barnett Formula – something that was welcomed by everyone in the room.

Dr Theresa Donaldson discussed the small pockets of deprivation in Northern Ireland that are often masked by more affluent neighbourhoods nearby and therefore fail to attract funding and neighbourhood renewal schemes. She argued that we need to ensure that future programmes and funding are fully inclusive of these communities.

Drawing on the DUP’s paper on the future of regional policy that will be out of consultation soon, Dodds stated that improving EU Structural Funds is a priority for the party. She outlined the need to build on the best of what is currently happening through local groups, such as womens centres, and called on organisations to continue the conversation with the party to shape future funding.

With contributions from groups including Extern, NILGA, NICON and elected representatives from Derry City and Strabane District Council, and Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council, the debate was comprehensive. Subjects discussed ranged from accessible transport to the industrial strategy, skills and progression, as well as women returning to the workplace. All are areas to which the DUP, JRF and the government will devote more time as the UK exits the European Union.