Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: DUP conference will feature a mix of defiance, worry and election rally as party bids to stir the faithful

DUP leader Arlene Foster and party members pictured at Stormont
DUP leader Arlene Foster and party members pictured at Stormont
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

This weekend’s DUP conference is perhaps the trickiest for the party since the one that followed the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA).

Two decades ago, the party raged against a deal it felt betrayed Northern Ireland.

Different deal today; same anger.

And the 1998 pact merely softened the border on the island of Ireland, rather than implemented new ones between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Given its rise after the GFA, the DUP might not be frightened of opposing another deal. But, like the GFA, the DUP might end up having to accept arrangements it rejected.

Unlike recent years, Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds won’t be welcoming many Conservatives to the annual gathering.

No Chancellors telling jokes at the conference dinner. No prime ministerial wannabe denouncing GB-NI regulatory and customs checks as evils he could not possibly contemplate.

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The conference hotel is large but even it cannot accommodate U-turns that size.

Savagely dropped by the Prime Minister less than a fortnight ago, the DUP will congregate in a slightly improved — but still nervous — mood.

The party’s MPs have hit back, derailing Boris Johnson’s masterplan to leave the EU by October 31. Pivotal Commons votes last Saturday and on Tuesday showed how DUP relevance remains, but not as anticipated during the heady days of the Conservative-DUP tie-up.

It is the Brexit DUP-Labour confidence and supply arrangement attracting interest.

Nigel Dodds aligning with Remainers and Jeremy Corbyn, thundering at PMQs against Northern Ireland being “thrown under a bus” outing his hitherto well-concealed unionism. Who knew?

The temporary unlikely alliance against a Boris Brexit might still thwart EU departure. That would get the DUP — which has not articulated its Brexit vision beyond a UK-wide departure — off its hook.

The DUP may have antagonised sections of Northern Ireland’s business and farming communities by opposing deals smoothing cross-border trade.

But the DUP leadership will emphasise barriers to internal trade in the UK created by a GB-NI customs regime.

The PM and Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay seemed confused this week as what their deal entailed.

Barclay confirmed UK “exports” to Northern Ireland — that term will be well-received at the DUP conference, I’m sure — would need declarations. Boris Johnson said there would be no checks of such declarations.

Beyond Brexit, there is little good news, from a DUP perspective, in the party leader’s review of the political year.

A simultaneous same-sex marriage reception in the conference hotel might score highly on the slightly awkward scale.

Legalised via backbench Westminster legislation, the DUP wrongly assumed its confidence and supply arrangement would prevent this form of union.

The party was outmanoeuvred by Labour MP Conor McGinn’s Bill, changing legislation for Northern Ireland.

That said, at least two DUP MPs were privately unconcerned by the liberalisation, whilst regretting the encroachment upon devolution.

It is also worth remembering the DUP fielded its first openly gay candidate at this year’s council elections.

Undoubtedly the DUP is more concerned by the legalisation of abortion, making Northern Ireland’s rules more liberal than most European countries.

The party was perhaps naive, there was the possibility of amending Labour MP Stella Creasy’s Westminster Bill to at least reduce abortion time limits.

Calling for alignment with the Republic at a 12-week limit might have chimed with public opinion and provided an interesting test of Sinn Fein’s position.

Instead the DUP preferred an absolutist rejection of change on moral and devolutionary principles.

Failure to amend the legislation at Westminster meant that the DUP was reduced to an Assembly recall stunt, with little prospect of reversing the changes.

With an election imminent, the timing of Sir Patrick Coghlin’s (right) RHI report is potentially crucial for the DUP.

The key is how blame is distributed between Arlene Foster as minister, DUP special advisers and civil servants.

If the admonishment is equally scattered and the emphasis is on cock-up not conspiracy, the report might be survivable.

Regardless of any rumblings over the leadership, there is no obvious successor keen on the job.

The conduct of DUP representatives was the subject of a Foster apology in her conference speech last year — but there have been fresh allegations concerning one DUP MP and repeating apologies does not look good.

Perhaps most depressing for the DUP leader is the demise of her local power base, now surely in its death throes.

Last year’s failure to sell an Irish Language Act internally to the party downed the slight chance of restoring the institutions.

Foster’s predecessor managed eight years as First Minister; Foster managed one before the institutions collapsed.

Direct rule would end Strand 1 of what was agreed in 1998. Maybe the DUP was right after all in 1998 — the Good Friday Agreement won’t work.

It is by no means all doom and gloom.

Some 85% of the £1bn won for Northern Ireland by the DUP has been allocated and 75% will have been spent by the end of the 2019-20 financial year. Infrastructure projects, health and education have all benefited, albeit via Northern Ireland Office allocations not ministerial decisions.

The devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales have looked on enviously and complained about the DUP-won cash breaching the Barnett Formula.

Notwithstanding election nervousness, the DUP’s resilience at the polls is evident.

Its demise has long been forecast by those preferring to analyse the political world via the prism of their preferred outcome rather than electoral realities.

The DUP topped the 2019 council election poll, put on nearly 20,000 votes and increased its first preference vote share, albeit losing eight seats in the process.

Diane Dodds was the first candidate elected in the European elections and the DUP’s first preference vote rose marginally.

At the four elections since the Brexit referendum, the DUP’s vote share has fallen only once — by a hardly Earth-shattering 1% in the 2017 Assembly election.

The assumption that the DUP will be punished for its Brexit stance is unproven. Alliance’s recent progress appears more at the expense of the UUP than the DUP.

With Brexit delicately poised, aspects of the deal with the Conservatives still needing to be hailed and an election looming, the DUP leadership will tread carefully in their conference messages.

The event will be a mix of defiance, worry and election rallying.

And there will be no place for a blond false prophet opposing borders in the Irish Sea. He’s detained in a ditch.

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