Belfast Telegraph

Conservative Party conference: Group of young people, dressed in mourning wear and carrying a full-sized teak coffin full of white lilies, had come to bury Brexit... one thing is for certain, with the amount of paper they hand out, the protesters are not environmentalists'

NI political commentator Tom Kelly didn't know what to expect when he flew into Birmingham for this week's Conservative Party conference. What he found resembled a glimpse into a dystopian post-Brexit future

The students dressed in mourning wear had come to bury Brexit
The students dressed in mourning wear had come to bury Brexit
DUP leader Arlene Foster with Prime Minister Theresa May at the Birmingham conference

It's madness, pure madness." That was the verdict of my taxi driver Jamal as he drove me from Birmingham Airport to the Tory party conference. He wasn't talking about Brexit, but about the amount of road closures in various parts of the city. Jamal came to Birmingham in 1989 from Pakistan. He volunteered that he voted Remain.

Birmingham is home to the infamous Bull Ring and Spaghetti Junction. Infrastructure isn't its strong point. As a city it looks as if its best days are behind it. The dark, Victorian edifices and red brick mills are crumbling and what's new could only be described as Brutalist.

Birmingham didn't seem an obvious choice for a Tory conference, as the road from the airport is littered with down-at-heel convenience stores, seedy-looking shops, money transfer kiosks and fairly dilapidated local authority housing. What passes for public spaces are tired and wouldn't look out of place in the South Bronx.

Yet, Birmingham has a Tory mayor. If there were more affluent areas, they were not on the route to the International Conference Centre. Birmingham city centre is in acute need of a facelift and, if the number of cranes are a sign, it's about to get an overdue makeover.

Going to the Tory conference is not cheap. Like all major party conferences it's an opportunity for politicos to literally fleece visitors in full daylight.

On arrival for my accreditation I joined the first of many queues. If queuing was an Olympic sport the British would be gold medallists. Despite pre-registering I was asked to leave one queue and join another to await police inspection of my passport. The very polite copper not-so-reassuringly remarked: "I am not doing this because you have an Irish passport."

The policeman tapped away on the computer and then asked: "Where's your form?". I looked puzzled. Ah, he said, you don't exist yet, because you haven't been written up on a form. I never thought about not existing before. He then filled out a form by longhand and proceeded to upload my details on to the computer. I now existed. Is this what post-Brexit Britain will look like? Bugger the technology for a frictionless border, we will still need forms and form-fillers.

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Imagine the queues in Dover. No form, no entry. Of course, former Secretary of State Theresa Villiers doesn't see it that way. Technology that doesn't yet exist will fulfil all our needs post-Brexit, according to the Boudicca of Chipping Barnet. Having been soundly checked, I was escorted back to another queue. When I finally reached the desk I was invited to take a seat, which wasn't a good omen. Then the technology kicked in. I got a text message from the Conservative Press office saying my pass was ready. Only it wasn't. I waited a further 45 minutes while passes were doled out by the dozen to tousle-haired Crispins in loafers and coiffured Cressidas in stilettos.

My Irish paranoia set in. Was this discrimination? No, it wasn't. It was pure, old-fashioned British administrative incompetence. While it was frustrating me, those more regular conference attendees seemed resigned to this wholly ineffective system. Along with the queues and losing at cricket, administrative incompetence is one of those things that seem to make Crispin and Cressida proud to be British. Finally, armed with my credentials, I could now enter the secure zone. But first I had to dump my suit bag, as the security guy told me no luggage was allowed in the secure zone.

Having decided to book accommodation late, my first choice of hotel looked great online, but a closer inspection of TripAdvisor revealed that it was, in fact, a knocking-shop for sleazy businessmen and that class A drugs were widely available near the entrance. I cancelled immediately.

My second-choice hotel was in the Irish Quarter - and, yes, Birmingham, like Belfast, uses the term "quarter" liberally, not literally. I booked what looked like a tired and less-grand version of the Slieve Donard Hotel, only to be told, post-booking, by an Irish student on Facebook that he wouldn't put a dog in there. Hotel inspectors must be as rare in Birmingham as friendly parking attendants are in Belfast.

My final choice of incarceration was a three-star hotel/hostel. Unlike Europe, as described by Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, it really was as grim as a prison and I did want to escape. Frayed at the edges would be an understatement. The bed linen hadn't been changed and the grubby blinds hung over the windows as if survival depended on it. And don't get me started on the bathroom. I threw towels over the bed and pillows and I slept in my jeans, T-shirt and socks - a criminal fashion offence, I know, but bugs bite. Throughout the night I felt I was not alone. The paper-thin walls meant that I could hear the nocturnal activities of my neighbours, who were also conference delegates. I thought of Jamal's words: "Madness, pure madness."

Party conferences, by their nature, with hundreds of fringe meetings everywhere, require the stamina of a long-distance runner.

On my way into the conference I was accosted by all sorts of campaigners, protesters and just plain old weirdos. Party conferences do attract a lot of the latter. My favourite was Betty the Badger, who opposed the culling of badgers, which was a prime policy objective of the Brexit-loving former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Owen Paterson.

Lucky for the badgers, Paterson got culled from political office first.

A close second in the freaky protesters competition was the omnipresent Jesus squad, whose very Jeffrey Dahmer-like smiles made me nervous.

Coming third was a group of young people dressed in mourning wear and carrying a very full-sized teak coffin, replete with white lilies.

When I worked it out, they had come to bury Brexit. One thing is for certain: with the amount of paper they hand out, conference protesters are not environmentalists.

Inside the great exhibition area there was much to see: Conservative Friends of India, Conservative Friends of Pakistan, Westminster Italian Conservatives, Conservative Friends of Israel and even Conservative Friends of China. This was pluralism and multiculturalism Tory-style.

Alas, there were no Conservative Friends of Ireland, although the Irish ambassador announced at his well-attended reception that this would soon be remedied, deal or no deal.

One crowd present at the conference who clearly could do with some friends are the actual Northern Ireland Conservatives, who have been somewhat sidelined by the Tory deal with the DUP. I could feel their pain.

Interestingly, one stand that caught my eye was the LGBT Conservatives. I admired their display and then asked how they square their campaigning focus on equality while their party is in bed with the DUP, which is blocking equal rights in Northern Ireland for the LGBT community.

The reply surprised me: "They have their views and we have ours. We don't want to tread on their toes." No solidarity there for their brothers and sisters in the LGBT community here.

Which, of course, brings me to the darlings of this year's Tory party conference, the DUP. Once the Ugly Sisters of Westminster politics, they are now having their Cinderella moment. Graced and feted by Government ministers, the DUP members revelled in the celebrity status.

There was much talk about sovereignty and taking decisions on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland, but very little in terms of outreach or inclusiveness. The Government has clearly given them a cake laden with cherries.

There was an air of unreality about it, too.

The DUP is cock of the walk for now, but as made clear in the speeches, the party really does fear the spectre of a Corbyn-led Government. This led to one seasoned observer remarking that, at some stage, that fear will lock them into doing whatever the PM wants. It's a truism in politics that, if you can be bought, you also can be sold.

As Jamal said: "Madness, pure madness."

Belfast Telegraph


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