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Jon Tonge: After a testing year the DUP's faithful will be buoyed by some PM bashing from Boris


Boris Johnston

Boris Johnston

AFP/Getty Images

Boris Johnston

The DUP gathers for its annual conference this weekend after one of the most turbulent years in the party's recent history. Thank goodness Boris Johnson will be speaking, just to calm everyone down.

Brexit-marginalised by the Prime Minister; near-collapse of the confidence-and-supply arrangement with the Government and at odds with Northern Ireland's business and farming communities. Stormont in deep freeze; a failed attempt to sell an Irish Language Act; a series of embarrassments at the RHI inquiry. I'm half-expecting to turn up and find the conference cancelled.

So those gathered at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Belfast - there's proof the party embraces change, as the conference is normally held at the La Mon - might be reeling from all such dramas.

Yet the DUP has, of course, been written off before. Twenty years ago, the party's obituaries were being written.

Opposition to the Good Friday Agreement placed the DUP at odds with every major political party, most of civic society and the industrial and business classes. Five years later and the DUP had become Northern Ireland's most popular party.

Whilst the party might not revel in its current apparent isolation, it is operating at a much more rarefied level than was the case two decades ago. Last year saw it achieve a record vote share, its highest number of Westminster seats and power at Westminster.

Having flexed its muscles this week on the Finance Bill, the DUP has illustrated how the Conservative government might struggle to pass legislation.

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The DUP's pro-Brexit voter base is not repelled by their party's approach or concerned by the vociferous condemnation of its rejection of the Prime Minister's EU withdrawal deal. The typical DUP voter is a skilled or semi-skilled manual worker, a small local business owner or a modestly-rewarded clerical worker - not a person doing cross-border business. Whether the DUP has used its power wisely is another matter.

Last December saw the party veto Theresa May's plan to blithely proceed with a two-tier Brexit. This would have left Northern Ireland half-in and half-out of the EU in the (likely) event of a comprehensive UK-EU trade deal failing to be agreed which addressed the border issue.

Exercise of that apparent veto ought to have provided a platform by which the DUP worked with local businesses and farmers, and those across the border, to examine what areas of continuing alignment with the EU might be acceptable - and not - and to present that case to the Westminster government and the EU.

Instead, the DUP's blanket rejection of any internal regulatory divergence to manage the EU/UK border has been brushed aside, not just by May's government and the EU - that was to be expected - but by Northern Ireland's cross-border traders. The DUP could have been more cognisant of their genuine fears of a no-deal exit from the EU.

The DUP's objection - as a unionist party - to checks on goods travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland is understandable. The Withdrawal Agreement is far too vague over their extent and scope.

The DUP could still play a role in ensuring these are minimised and regularly reviewed and the party was entitled to greater clarity from the UK government. But it's hard to see the DUP mobilising a Unionist Task Force to Larne or Aldergrove to thwart these checks.

Arlene Foster faces a tough job in her leader's speech in charting the way forward. She can hope her Westminster Ten will help down the Withdrawal Agreement - May's majority remains distant - but very few see a no deal exit as good for Northern Ireland.

Parliamentary paralysis might lead to a People's Vote and possibly no Brexit. There are a few DUP members who, quietly, might not be too aghast - at least Remain would be a UK-wide policy - but we won't be hearing those voices in the conference hall. Most will be applauding Boris accusing the PM of betrayal.

For Arlene, there is also the task of shoring up her position as leader.

The extent of disquiet can be overblown. There have always been opponents - a few never wanted an 'Ulster Unionist' taking over 'their' party, but they are not a sizeable or coherent grouping.

Some resented the attempt to revive Stormont via an Irish Language Act, but given her lack of local power, Foster's attempt at reviving the failed Assembly was understandable.

Of more salience is the RHI inquiry verdict next spring. The DUP leader's best hope might be for the widest possible distribution of blame and a verdict grounded in cock-up not conspiracy. Leadership issues always attract interest and babble. But even if Foster was obliged to depart, what difference would it make?

For I can exclusively reveal that there isn't a pro-Irish Language Act, same-sex marriage supporting, abortion liberalising, amnesties-for-all backing, Remain-voting, EU-sympathising, regulatory divergence-accepting rival candidate lurking within the DUP's ranks.

Whatever the broader sense of crisis, there will be little talk of Spads or spats or schisms this weekend.

A DUP conference is a convivial rally, much enjoyed by the faithful.

Security might be tight, but that's just to keep out Conservative Whips. No votes are taken and the stage is a platform for some tub-thumping rhetoric - so Boris should blend in nicely - juxtaposed with some intelligent panel discussions with business stalwarts (that could be trickier this year).

A bit like the Conservative conference, but more flags. It begins with prayers, which seems a particularly good idea this year. And to finish things off, there's always Willie McCrea singing 'There'll Always be an Ulster ... Farmers' Union'. Not.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the Liverpool

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