Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: Foster's speech may have been punchy but rhetoric was toned down as party reflects on future in changing times

Conference address: DUP leader Arlene Foster
Conference address: DUP leader Arlene Foster
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

Flying back over the prospective regulatory and customs borders in the Irish Sea on Saturday evening, there was much to ponder from the DUP conference.

In front of considerably smaller numbers than last year, the party leader Arlene Foster took to the stage just as Take That's words "Stay Close to Me" filled the auditorium. Given that the Prime Minister has done the exact opposite, Foster's 'Greatest Day' (the song title) was unlikely to follow the Greatest Betrayal.

Nonetheless this fourth party leadership speech was interesting and punchy. It contained more substance than last year's post-Johnson effort, memorable only for the contrition regarding the conduct of some elected representatives. Most, but not all, had heeded that stricture over the last 11 months.

There were some clear messages. On the PM's EU Withdrawal Agreement, it needs to change, because the DUP will not.

With the conference a Conservative-free zone for the first time in several years, Foster used the occasion to show her party was still in the parliamentary game.

Understandably, she highlighted the pivotal role of DUP votes in defeating Johnson twice since his desertion.

The speech insisted "we were not seeking a perfect deal. No such deal exists. We were seeking a deal which delivered Brexit without erecting barriers to trade".

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This rather overlooked that the UK leaving the organisation with which it does half its trade might be one such barrier. And we still await a document outlining with precision what a DUP Brexit would look like. No conference sessions were dedicated to Brexit.

With the zeal of a Good Friday Agreement convert, the DUP leader also criticised consent mechanisms within the EU alignment proposals.

Foster argued that "if you believe in the principles of power-sharing then those principles must be enshrined in any deal".

For power-sharing, read unionist veto. This is a logical position for the DUP to take but it sat uncomfortably with Foster's later assertion that Northern Ireland is about "so much more than two traditions now".

The other big theme was the need to restore Stormont. Short of relocating the conference to the Gaeltacht and delivering her speech in Irish, Foster could not have done much more to hint at a resurrection of a comprehensive bill to deal with cultural identity and linguistic provision.

However, this fell short of a promise of the standalone Irish Language Act demanded by Sinn Fein. And questions remain over what is sellable internally within the DUP.

Of the other issues, same-sex marriage may have disappeared - unmentioned on Saturday - but abortion certainly has not. Foster went off-script in her insistence that "Both Lives Matter".

There ought to be the basis for some common ground with Sinn Fein here in changing the legislation - why would republicans back a 12-week Irish time limit in the South and a 24-week UK limit in the North? - but the old abortion laws are consigned to history.

The DUP might have tabled its own amendment to the Executive Formation Act at Westminster to compete against Stella Creasy's proposals. Now it will be much tougher to change the legislation.

Foster has clearly not given up on a Stormont revival. But with the RHI report looming and Sinn Fein about to embark on its own intriguing leadership contest, there cannot be movement until next year at the earliest.

The British Government's desperate aversion to direct rule - in effect, the death of the Good Friday Agreement - means inertia remains likeliest.

Foster's delivery was preceded by some rousing material from Westminster leader Nigel Dodds.

He offered an effective excoriation of the abject confused messages from the government over whether there will be regulatory and customs checks on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This was an easy target but one still worth hitting.

So far, we've had the denial of any checks (Prime Minister); the need for export declarations (Brexit Secretary); promises to keep things as straightforward as possible (Secretary of State for NI) and maybe a role for Border Officials (Home Secretary).

Dodds caustically cut through the fog in the Irish Sea.

His day had not started well, however, with an attempt by incoming UUP leader, Steve Aiken, to steal DUP conference thunder.

Aiken's declaration that there would be no unionist pacts at the General Election may be sensible in terms of clarifying UUP distinctiveness. It may put down a marker for liberal unionism. But if the John Finucane/Sinn Fein victory party is in full swing in North Belfast on election night, with Dodds ousted, expect big unionist recriminations.

Quite how the UUP expects to retake Fermanagh and South Tyrone if the DUP retaliates and enters that contest is also unclear.

Aiken's thinking on where to take the UUP may ask questions about the DUP. But it is a mistake to assume that the DUP is not doing likewise regarding its own brand.

A New Generation Unionism section of the conference brochure was candid in its questions about the future.

It acknowledged that winning a border poll "will be dependent on people who don't vote for unionist parties".

It asked how the party can respond given that "survey after survey demonstrates that there are more people who want to remain in the UK than would ever vote for a unionist political party" and acknowledged the need to balance tradition with change.

So, there is a process of introspection within the DUP and Saturday's conference toned down the bellicose rhetoric sometimes still heard on such occasions.

The fear overhanging Saturday's conference was that by the time Next Generation Unionism emerges, it might be in the context of an economic united Ireland.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author of recent books on the DUP and UUP (Oxford University Press).

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