When mask slips we can see DUP has not changed
Political party conferences tend to be weird affairs — especially in Northern Ireland. These controlled and choreographed events aim to galvanise and inspire the party faithful while presenting a smooth, coherent, attractively confident face to the general public.
But satisfying the tribe and impressing the wider world don't always go hand-in-hand — and we saw that at last weekend's DUP conference.
Party leader Peter Robinson — all buffed and quiffed and statesmanlike — strode on to the podium to the sound of bombastic stadium rock and spoke emolliently about reaching out to Catholic voters and drawing a line under ‘them and us’ politics.
Meanwhile, Sammy Wilson — bizarrely kitted out in a pair of black wraparound shades — undermined the noble pluralist talk with his customarily crude stand-up routine about the DUP's political enemies.
Chortling away at his own gags, he made a tasteless crack about punishment beatings and likened babies in a Sinn Fein creche to IRA hunger strikers. Embarrassing.
The DUP has a rather unattractive history of resorting to crude insults. During a UUP-DUP barney in 2003, Peter Robinson called David Trimble a “baboon”. On another occasion, the Rev Ian Paisley — prior to his latter-day cuddly granddad incarnation — made fun of the size of Brian Cowen's lips.
It's the sort of stuff that makes the rest of us cringe, but the DUP grassroots love it. This time was no exception. Sammy had the whole crowd — from the young, male DUP hair-gelled apparatchiki (remember, lads: less is more) to flag-waving grannies — whooping and cheering him on.
For his finale, Wilson segued suddenly into a spot of hand-on-heart party patriotism, before rounding off with a burst of braggadocio about the DUP lion biting David Ford and Enda Kenny. So much for no more “them and us”.
But that's Sammy for you. And for all his laboured, unfunny and borderline offensive jibes, at least he appears to be a real flesh-and-blood person, untouched by the deadening hand of political spin.
I much prefer his up-front style of bluster and banter to the smooth, sanitised rhetoric of Peter Robinson's speech. With Sammy, you feel you know where you are.
There was one discordant moment in Robinson's otherwise deliberately high minded address to the conference: he said he was tired of listening to “professional nay-sayers who seem intent on talking Northern Ireland and democratic politicians down”. It quickly became clear that the target of his ire was BBC presenter Stephen Nolan.
In a clear reference to Nolan's weight, Robinson said that “while he’s eating his crisps and Mars bars, he’s either putting the worst possible construction on what politicians are trying to do — or encouraging others to do so.”
Now this could be seen as nothing more than a bit of petty point-scoring; another instance of the DUP's tendency to resort to personal insult.
But Robinson's complaint about Nolan is more disturbing than that. I believe it is in fact, representative of a culture of complacency and entitlement — not just in the DUP but at Stormont in general — where certain senior politicians react with varying degrees of outrage when they are called to account.
They have a low tolerance for legitimate, interrogative questioning; they act as though they cannot believe the cheek of the media in daring to delve into their own closely-guarded territory.
Robinson himself is well known for barking irascibly at journalists.
But I've seen other senior politicians, such as Gerry Adams and David Ford, rear their heads and gobble like outraged hens when they are asked a question they don't like. When Martin McGuinness ran for the Irish presidency, he was clearly surprised, annoyed and deeply rattled by the intensity of the scrutiny that he came under from the Republic's media about his time in the IRA.
Why? Because he was unprepared for it.
He had never had such a sustained, unremitting grilling like that back home in Northern Ireland — and he didn't know what hit him.
The truth is our politicians need more scrutiny from the media.
Whatever you think about Stephen Nolan and his show, the fact that Peter Robinson thought it legitimate to complain about him in a showcase party conference speech shows a fundamental disconnect from reality.
It is absurd for politicians to whine about journalistic “nay-saying”.
It is not the job of journalists to support politicians. It is their job to hold them stringently to account.
And the sooner our politicians realise that, the better.