Belfast Telegraph

DUP plays it straight with eye on London

Usual jokers sidelined for serious

By Suzanne Breen

It may be less than a month until Christmas but the usual rollicking romp of a pantomime that is the DUP conference was replaced by an altogether duller show.

Previous star-studded casts and their props - Gregory Campbell with his curry paste and yogurt pot, Sammy Wilson's barbed banter, and Ian Paisley with his devil-may-care attitude - were restricted to minor roles.

"I'm on my best behaviour!" joked Mr Paisley, his lapel crowded with ribbons and pins from campaign stalls outside the conference hall.

Inside, an act was badly needed to raise the roof.

But it was safe and steady chief whip Julian Smith the Tories sent over, not the box office draw of Boris Johnson.

Rev Willie McCrea introduced God Save The Queen - but the impromptu renditions from his own repertoire that he has performed in previous years were not to be.

Jokes, which normally come thick and fast, were few and far between and tediously tame.

The audience at the La Mon Hotel near Belfast wasn't rolling in the aisles, but that was exactly as the DUP top brass had planned it. With the national media watching on, the party was taking no chances.

Having proven itself as a serious player with its £1 billion deal with the Tories, now wasn't the time for clowning around.

The billed big media beasts of the Westminster lobby, Laura Kuenssberg and Robert Peston, didn't weigh in, as far fewer journalists than expected flew over from London. Yet the conference was a slick operation that passed without faux pas.

The job of introducing leader Arlene Foster fell to the party's South Down Westminster candidate Diane Forsythe, a woman clearly going places.

The DUP's upper echelons may see her as a future MLA in the constituency, which is currently represented by Jim Wells.

Mrs Foster walked to the podium to Take That's Get Ready For It - "Arlene's a big Take That fan," explained one DUP worker.

Delegates enthusiastically waved the Union and Northern Ireland flags they'd been given and shouts of "Come On Arlene" rang out.

After a long and often gruelling year, the DUP leader was glad to be home. The warm words with which she greeted party members were from the heart.

So was her gratitude to Nigel Dodds who steadied the ship at key moments when other crew members voiced private doubts. He was thanked for his "loyalty" several times.

Mrs Foster never referred to her unionist rivals once in her seven-page address.

With the UUP and TUV sidelined after poor election results, she didn't count them worthy of even a caustic mention.

Like Michelle O'Neill's speech at the Sinn Fein ard fheis the previous weekend, the DUP leader's was overwhelmingly anodyne. Both women resisting the chance to hammer the opposition in front of the faithful is a sure sign that an agreement between their parties is very much still on the cards.

Senior DUP figures told the Belfast Telegraph that fresh talks should begin before Christmas and they were optimistic about an eventual deal with Sinn Fein.

While Mrs Foster's speech was big on pieties but short on detail, that of Mr Dodds was far more substantial. He said "difficult decisions" lay ahead for the party if devolution was to be restored, a signal to grassroots that compromise will be required.

He also warned that the party must be "alive to changes in demography and shifts in society" - which this newspaper took as 'the Catholic population is increasing, as is support for equal marriage'.

Neither Mrs Foster nor Mr Dodds mentioned RHI or Charter NI, the two scandals which have plagued the party recently.

With its 36% vote, the DUP may be in a strong position to sell a deal to its base, but it will still take effort. One MLA told me: "People want devolution but not at any price. Resistance to an Irish Language Act on the ground is enormous.

"We repeatedly hear: 'No deal is better than the wrong deal'."

As for demographics, it wasn't all gloomy for the party. A record 17 DUP babies took their places at the conference crèche.

Belfast Telegraph

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