DUP Conference Coverage: Can Northern Ireland ever be a society free of sectarianism?

Jonathan Lavery discusses the latest DUP conference - is Northern Ireland 'Moving Forward'?

DUP Peter Robinson

It was apparent upon arrival at this year’s annual DUP conference (on the outskirts of East Belfast) that it was set to be the biggest and busiest conference to date for the party. There was buoyancy and a palpable mood of excitement in the air amongst the many hundreds of delegates. There were almost no spaces left for cars in the packed parking area, and throughout the opening session on Friday, three or four sets of new seats had to be set out to accommodate the sheer volume of delegates and observers in attendance. This would become a theme that would develop throughout the Saturday where it was literally standing room only for the most part. DUP delegates were out in considerable numbers to rejoice in the success of the previous twelve months. This was a year which provided the party with poll-topping performance in the elections back in May for both Assembly and Local Government. It was also a year which firmly consolidated the DUP as the largest party in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland has come out of nearly forty dreadful years of blood-shed and violence and into a different era, one in which people are concerned about things that affect them on a daily basis. “Normal Politics” and “bread and butter issues” were once terms foreign to many of us in this tiny part of the world, but this has now become common place during this period of devolved rule. Unionism has unanimously backed Stormont and whilst things may not be perfect, it is only the smallest of minorities out there that want us to go back to ‘the bad old days.’
The message of the DUP conference was abundantly clear from the outset. The DUP was here to highlight how far both it as a party, and Northern Ireland has come. The leadership was going to set out clearly where it and Northern Ireland is right now, and where we are going next. Whilst doing that, the party sought to outline a vision for the future of N.I, whilst not forgetting how we got to this point.

The Deputy leader, Nigel Dodds set the tone in his speech; “First Minister, Ministers, Lords, Members of Parliament. MLAs, Member of the European Parliament, Aldermen, Councillors, Members, Friends…… Those simple opening words are worth taking a moment to reflect upon.”  Commenting on the 40th anniversary of the formation of the Democratic Unionist Party, Dodds provided the faithful with a rousing speech highlighting the success “Then, we had one MP. Of course, that was no ordinary MP. That was the one and only, Ian Paisley…But as we meet here today our Party holds the First Ministry of Northern Ireland, it has 4 Executive Ministries, a junior Ministry, 8 Members of Parliament, 4 Peers of the Realm, our Member of European Parliament, 38 MLAs and 175 Aldermen & Councillors with a presence on every Council in Northern Ireland.”

Furthermore, he assured delegates that the Union was safe and ‘the resolute stance of the DUP has ensured that Unionists can look forward to the future with confidence.’ But in ‘moving forward’, he commented that ‘this party will not permit anyone to rewrite or re-invent what happened to the generations that have gone before us.’  Furthermore, Dodds cited Winston Churchill who said that “the nation that forgets its past is doomed to repeat it.” “We cannot live in the past. But we must remember our past.”

Arlene Foster, (Minister for Enterprise & Tourism) Nelson McCalusand (Minister for Social Development) and Edwin Poots (Minister for Health) all spoke to the gathered throng also. Foster told conference that “Over the last number of years we have invested much in stabilising our Government in Stormont, developing strategies and building infrastructure.  Over the next number of years we need to work together to help to develop, build and celebrate Northern Ireland.” Mr. Poots told delegates that he was “not afraid of taking the hard decisions needed in the health service” and told delegates that “change is on its way” whilst Mr McCausland indicated that he would introduce a “one strike and you’re out scheme” as used in Scotland by handing out yellow card warnings to Housing Executive tenants involved in anti-social behaviour. The Finance Minister Sammy Wilson also took to the stage and proclaimed that the DUPs “lion can still roar and the DUP lion can still bite.”

All four Ministers highlighted the DUP’s strength in government and all four praised the key-note speaker and Party Leader Peter Robinson for being the “architect” of the success. Observers were interested to find out what the party leader had in store for them and there was much speculation (some innacurate) amongst journalists in attendance.

The First Minister took to the stage amidst a fanfare of lights, music, applause and cheers. He delivered a memorable and headline worthy speech and was described by his Finance Minister, some commentators, observers and delegates as a “visionary.” Mr Robinson told the party conference that “it was time to build a new Northern Ireland.” Commenting on the conflict of the last 40 years, the leader asserted that it had caused “terrible divisions” “It became a case of ‘them and us’ and that attitude deepened divisions even further.” He added that “If we want a better society it can’t be them and us – it can only be all of us.” Mr. Robinson declared that the Union was safer than ever before and now that it is secure, and we have peace; “there can be no greater guarantee of the long-term security of the union than the support of significant numbers of Catholics.”

Furthermore, he added that recent surveys revealed that more than half of Catholics wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK and only a third wanted a united Ireland. Mr. Robinson added that power-sharing had delivered progress on agreeing moves towards creating a shared society and that it was important to seize the opportunity. The First minister stressed that we are in peace time and have the chance to now prosper, he continued; “I tell you, now is the moment,” he said. “Miss it and we may miss it forever. “We have the prospect of making a difference that previous generations never had or never took, a chance that future generations may never get or never grab.”

The DUP leader placed substantial emphasis in his keynote speech on looking to the future and trying to shape a society free of sectarianism. It was clear from his speech that he is looking to end the days of ‘them and us’ politics once and for all, whilst stressing the need for us all to work harder to achieve more of a shared society. Whilst acknowledging the difficulties of the past, and the need for a different narrative in a different time and environment, he added; “we are the first generation of peacetime unionists for many decades, no longer under siege, moving forward with confidence and able to reach out.” It was mentioned by a number of delegates including a couple of MLAs that the DUP leader has never been in a stronger position. It was also remarked that his equivalents in local parties could not put up a comparable performance.

Many lobbyists and other outside interest groups were also in attending this weekend at the conference and this provided them with the opportunity to engage directly with Northern Irelands decision makers. Some of those lobbyists told me afterwards that the DUP is ‘well ahead of other local parties in engaging with us.” During the course of Saturday, there were also a number of extra events happening. The volume of younger party members has clearly grown year on year which was evident at the conference, and this was exemplified in the make-up of side events with both a Youth Seminar and Social Media workshop being two of the best attended lunchtime happenings. A number of avid ‘tweeters’ who were in attendance at the conference also commented on the conference long hive of activity on #DUPConf with party supporters and commentators offering their two cents on proceedings.

The message of the conference was a positive one. Highlighting DUP achievements in government whilst laying out plans to enable Northern Ireland to reach its potential and “fulfil its promise” in the coming years. The Keynote speech by the First Minister was progressive and spoke of the need for more working together to achieve a better NI. Another noteworthy product of the annual conference was the introduction on the DUP website of recruiting “registered party supporters”. These supporters could comprise of civil servants, police officers and anyone currently prevented from playing an active role in politics. In closing, delegates were told last year that it was the biggest ever conference and were promised that the next year would “be bigger.” The 2011 conference did not disappoint. In order to justify the size and scale of the annual event, the speeches and proceedings had to deliver, they did. Any delegates, observers and even a few ‘hacks’ commented that it was the most positive party conference they had attended this year and despite the presence Sammy Wilsons sunglasses, there was no ‘lights out’ moment at this party conference!

The Full Key Note speech can be read here

Jonathan Lavery
Politics student, hack and occasional blogger and with an interest in British and N. Irish politics. @JonnyLav