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NI's first lady on crest of wave as good times roll on for Arlene

Controversial topics left outside as DUP conference resembles a big family gathering with jokes, laughter, sing-alongs and even some Will Grigg-esque chants for leader

By Suzanne Breen

It was billed as a political event, but the DUP annual conference in the La Mon Hotel was more like an old-fashioned family wedding. There was singing and dancing, a huge feed, and everybody was dolled up for their big day out.

The speeches from the party's top brass were more like an exchange of banter between reunited relatives than serious political discourse. And controversial subjects like equal marriage and abortion were left at the front door.

Preparations had been made for how to deal with uninvited guests. The surprisingly heavy police presence outside, rumour had it, wasn't aimed at dissident republicans, but at gay rights activists who might try to gatecrash the event.

Inside, it fell to Gregory Campbell to introduce the not-so blushing bride who didn't show any nerves as she walked up the aisle.

"I want you all to stand to your feet today to greet the leader of the DUP, the first lady of Northern Ireland, the First Minister of Northern Ireland, the right honourable Arlene Foster MLA," he declared with pride.

And Arlene didn't need any groom by her side, she can hold centre stage all by herself.

The party had distributed mini-Union flags among delegates, and these were waved with gusto as she made her entrance.

The DUP leader maintained the patriotic colour theme with a red jacket and navy blue wide-legged trousers.

Though the red, white and blue handbag - bought by a friend for the conference - had been left in the car, she confessed.

Arlene took to the podium to the strains of Sister Sledge's We Are Family. She stressed how she had once been the outsider, welcomed to the clan.

"When I joined this party, the red carpet was rolled out for me," she said.

"I want to guarantee those who are joining us, now and in the future, the same will be the case for you."

She welcomed former North Antrim UUP Assembly candidate Andrew Wright - recruited to the DUP that very morning - and ex-UUP councillors Aaron Callan and Graham Craig, who had taken the plunge a few days earlier.

Although not privileged with a front pew, Graham wasn't far back in the sixth row. His face lit up at Arlene's words.

"I suppose I can clap myself," he said as he joined in the applause. "I've had a warmer welcome from the DUP today than I had in all my years in the UUP," he declared.

In her speech, Arlene took no swipes at Sinn Fein - surely a first for a DUP conference - although there was a jibe that predictions of a united Ireland by 2016 had been as reliable as those of a UUP electoral revival.

"This will come as a great disappointment to Anna Lo," she quipped.

The conference was, first and foremost, about the feelgood factor.

Just a year ago Northern Ireland was mired in a political crisis with the institutions on the brink of collapse.

The UUP was measuring up the curtains for their new Stormont office, Arlene recalled.

It was all very different today, she enthused.

The DUP had enjoyed a spectacular election result, its opponents were divided, and the Union and devolved institutions were secure.

She had her audience eating out of her hands. They whooped, whistled and cheered whenever they got the chance.

The UUP may just have been slightly ahead on delegate numbers at their conference a week earlier but, in terms of enthusiasm and exuberance, the DUP crowd were in a league of their own.

"Arlene is our leader, we shall not be moved!" was the first singalong.

Later, they were back on stage, altering the Will Grigg chant to 'Arlene's on fire', with Mrs Foster joining them to jump about on stage.

In the foyer, Upper Bann MLA Carla Lockhart spotted that Arlene and Diane Dodds were wearing the same jackets, though in different colours. Carla herself sparkled in a silver and black dress. "Style with substance here," she winked.

Not to let the women hog the fashion stakes, newly recruited councillor Graham Craig - who seems set to be an independent spirit in the DUP - pointed to his mustard waistcoat and pink tie. "I'm Arlene's first openly gay councillor!" he joked to the media.

Colleagues Christopher Stalford and Lee Reynolds didn't know what way to look.

Delegates received air fresheners bearing the DUP logo, plus a calendar with scenes of Northern Ireland and a gospel quote for each month.

Lunch was stuffed chicken, or salmon, with a hefty serving of potatoes and veg, followed by chocolate pavlova. The majority devoured it, but vegetarian Jim Wells understandably complained that he had been served pasta in cream sauce.

"The same pasta that I got last year and the year before that," the South Down MLA sighed.

A few tables away, police officers tucked into meat laden plates. They weren't left outside to make do with a sandwich in the cold. That's not how things work at DUP family gatherings.

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