Defiant and happily unrepentant in the face of criticism, the DUP 2014 conference was more of an extended election rally than a party political conference. The main speakers at the La Mon Hotel on the outskirts of Belfast mirrored this – Gregory Campbell, Sammy Wilson, Nigel Dodds, Lord Morrow and of course party leader Peter Robinson – all took turns to blast out DUP rhetoric.
Each of the speeches can be read and below we go through some of the main points that kept cropping up through the day.
The Ashers bakery case was one of the focal points of the DUP’s conference this year. The bakery is at the centre of a controversy after refusing to bake a cake for a gay rights group with a pro marriage equality slogan on it. Cakes from the bakery were being sold (£2) in order to raise money to fight a legal challenge from the Equality Commission and there was also a petition for attendees to sign to signal their support for the bakery. Diane Dodds MEP has often spoken about her track record in the European Parliament in highlighting the persecution of Christians across the world and for the DUP there’s no other place for them to be but firmly behind the bakery. The controversy has attracted a lot of publicity and gives the party an opportunity to set out their Christian credentials in the run up to the elections in May.
“The publicly funded Equality Commission has launched an unjustified attack on a small Christian family business. This is simply bullying. I contend that the Equality Commission is seeking to use the Ashers case to add a further layer of restrictions on Christian behaviour and practice. Ashers are in the front line of this combat. We must not leave them to stand alone.”
The other Executive parties
One party that shares many of the fundamental beliefs is the UUP and that was reflected in the fact that the DUP made it quite clear that they would be happy enough to make arrangements with them and other Unionist parties to ensure a unionist candidate is elected to Westminster next May in certain constituencies. At the same time, Robinson said that the UUP had made a fundamental error in joining with the Conservatives at the last election. The DUP’s appeal at the next election was laid out, that in a potentially hung parliament, they will demand as much as possible for Northern Ireland to support one of the national parties in forming a government. The DUP leader claimed that “ the DUP is the only party setting the political agenda in Northern Ireland” and attacked the other Executive parties, saying “Sinn Fein’s focus is on the South. The SDLP and UUP are focussed on survival. That’s why we must set the pace.”
Other parties either don’t take their seats (Sinn Fein) or already have natural allegiances to one of the national parties (SDLP/Labour, UUP/Conservatives, Alliance/Liberal Democrats) which means that the DUP might have more wiggle room in negotiations.
However, with a focus on the Ulster Unionists, Nigel Dodds, with typical bravado, stated during the conference that “Mike Nesbitt went from boasting of electoral success to one of the worst election results in his party’s history in the space of 48 hours.” He went on to criticise the SDLP, Alliance and Sinn Féin, saying “The SDLP can’t convince its own members on a United Ireland, a lone Alliance voice would be irrelevant and Sinn Féin can’t even win an Irish Unity referendum at Queens that Unionists boycotted.”
It wouldn’t be a DUP conference without a couple of jeers at the expense of Gerry Adams. Robinson told Adams that his “day will not come” and proclaimed that “the Union is safe”.
Mr Robinson appeared to offer out the hand of friendship saying that he wanted to “build bridges” and work with all political parties for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland with the caveat that there could be “no one sided deals” and that the DUP would never make a deal that was detrimental to the Unionist community.
The idea of the DUP building bridges was undermined completely however by the speech from Gregory Campbell. Having been widely criticised by Irish language speakers and the nationalist community for his “curry my yoghurt” comment in the Assembly, he proceeded to open his speech by actually bringing a small tub of yoghurt onto the stage and talking about how excited he was to have curry and coca cola for lunch. He then proceeded to tell the “slow learners” of Sinn Féin that their Irish language bill was no more than “toilet paper” to him and his party. Mr Campbell said that he had “no doubt that Sinn Féin would love to get agreement to its republican wish list” and claimed that “they would love nothing more than to lull unionists into agreeing to costly projects such as a Bill of Rights, and their long demanded Irish language Act.”
While going after other political parties is par for the course at a conference this kind of insult will probably reverberate around the nationalist community. It went down well in the main hall though, with cheers and laughter from the crowd and the DUP election strategy is not exactly aimed at making the party attractive to nationalists anyway.
The second group of voters who will be frustrated by Campbell’s comments will be the moderate voter, who are also not key to DUP success.
The only party that took more of a kicking from the party leader was the “flag lowering, parade stopping, gay marriage supporting, pro water charging, holier than thou” Alliance Party. The party leader said that “everybody knows this election will be a simple choice between the Alliance Party and Gavin – standing for unionism”. It is clear that Robinson is attempting to present his party as the complete antithesis of Alliance and that he wants to make it a choice between a metropolitan party and a party of old fashioned traditional values.
It’s absolutely no surprise that East Belfast was high up on the agenda of the DUP’s conference. Before 2010 the constituency had been held by a unionist or a conservative candidate since 1885 and since Naomi Long unseated Peter Robinson the drive to retake the seat has almost looked to be an obsession for the party.
If nothing else, speculation persists that Robinson is considering whether he should lead the DUP into the 2016 Assembly elections and he clearly would want to leave the party stronger than he found it. It also came at an incredibly difficult time for Robinson personally and so it’s easy to see the vindication, personal and professional, that would come for him if the DUP managed to retake it. It was announced that the man faced with this task is Gavin Robinson. The former Lord Mayor is a lifelong resident of East Belfast and was cheered loudly by conference when his candidacy was announced, with Mr Robinson declaring that “Gavin has a proven track record of success”.
Robinson’s speech was a mixture of optimism and warning, with one notable reference to the recent Scotland independence referendum as well as the constitutional future of the United Kingdom. Mr Robinson stated that it “simply isn’t good enough to rest on our laurels” and said that the referendum had been a wake up call.
“It isn’t good enough to believe that what we have, we hold, and that, as they say, is that. It isn’t good enough to believe that the economic, cultural and social gains we enjoy from the Union are easily understood, or indeed appreciated. If any lesson can be taken from Scotland, it’s that we need to rave about what we know works for Northern Ireland and the Union. A positive, progressive vision that builds on the best of Britain.”
His message of reconciliation and positively selling the benefits of the Union to those who are not Unionists sounded were in stark contrast to some of the jokes made by others at the conference about those not in the unionist community.
The publishing of the draft budget a few weeks ago meant that this topic was always going to come up and indeed the Finance Minister Simon Hamilton was on stage early in the day to provide positive spin on the alarming numbers. “Is this a perfect Budget? No it’s not” he stated, before saying “no one ever pretended it was. How could it be when it is a creature of compromise in the system we have at Stormont?”
Of course, there was time to not only outline the main areas of the proposed budget, but also time to criticise the strategies of the other Executive parties.
“There will always be some parties who selfishly decry the allocation to their department, demanding more money without any thought for where the extra money for them might come from. They’re the same parties who criticised the First Minister and I for agreeing a £100 million loan from the Chancellor. The simple truth is that without that £100m loan facility public services in Northern Ireland would be collapsing around us as we speak.
This Draft Budget was all about tough choices. Those parties who either abstained or voted against made the irresponsible choice. I hear them whinge. I hear them complain. What I never hear is a credible alternative.”
Mr Hamilton also stated that “Let’s be realistic with people. It is going to be tough. There will be pain as difficult decisions are made” and called for a “National Reform Plan” for Northern Ireland.
DUP 2014 had the same strange paradoxical nature as all party political conferences in Northern Ireland – walking the line between mature politics and striking the opposition.
The party had to be seen to be attempting to engage in grown up politics, trying to find a resolution to the crippling political issues that face us in order so they can attract all the voters who are sick of petty political squabbling. To do this they have to be seen to be trying to work with other parties. Yet on the other hand they have to be belligerent and attack other parties to fire up their own grassroots movement and set themselves apart from their partners in Government.
Unfortunately the messages of reconciliation and working “for the best of everyone in Northern Ireland” are often lost beneath petty party politics, cheap soundbites and in this case, yoghurt.
Jason Ashford | |