Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: Tame and tepid as Johnson's Brexit 'betrayal' hangs over DUP faithful

Warning: Emma Little Pengelly
Warning: Emma Little Pengelly
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

It really wasn't like a DUP conference. Since it became the biggest unionist voice in Northern Ireland, the party has toned down the speeches and spectacles at its annual shindig.

No more slapstick from Sammy. But it's still always loud and lively. On Saturday, it wasn't.

The DUP conference was, for the first time in my memory, a tame and tepid affair.

Last November's high octane event when Boris bedazzled in his keynote address was always going to be impossible to match.

And there were no Ulster Unionist converts to parade before the crowd as in previous years. One south Belfast UUP member did turn up, but wasn't overly impressed by what she saw.

"I'm a bit disillusioned with my own party so I decided to come along and have a look at the DUP," said Irene Harper.

"The anti-abortion rigidity puts me right off. They're talking about a vision of unionism that appeals to the next generation, yet their abortion policy alienates contemporary young women."

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This was always going to be a tricky conference for the DUP given the Prime Minister's very recent betrayal so it is unsurprising that the tone was flatter and less confrontational.

The Sinn Fein president and vice-president - "Mary Lou and Michelle" as Arlene almost affectionately called them - got a light touch.

Their party was told off for tweeting too much when it should be settling down to serious political business.

"This conference has a message for Connolly House. Stop making excuses. Stop boycotting. Get back to work," urged the DUP leader.

The Taoiseach, TUV, UUP, SDLP, and Alliance all failed to secure even a mention in Mrs Foster's speech bar a fleeting reference to the latter two potentially ganging up with Sinn Fein to "render unionist votes irrelevant" in an Assembly vote on post-Brexit arrangements.

One flash of the old DUP was when Gregory Campbell had a pop at the BBC and mischievously speculated if it would even exist in a few years' time given the rise of social media.

The other came when Emma Little Pengelly warned of "the very real and present danger" that is Jeremy Corbyn.

"We know his background. We know with whom his sympathies lie," she told delegates. "Let us make no mistake, Corbyn is the greatest existential threat to our Union.

"If Corbyn gets the keys to Number 10, our Union will be in peril. We must do everything to prevent this man from ever becoming Prime Minister."

Despite Boris's betrayal, the DUP isn't prepared to play footsie with the Labour leader, let alone get into bed with him. It still wants to keep the door open to a reconciliation with Boris Johnson.

Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds joked about Tory treachery right at the start of their speeches.

Mrs Foster said the DUP had put Boris "on the naughty step in Parliament twice in the last week" by helping defeat the Government in critical votes. Nigel noted that Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay had asked to address the conference but had been "politely declined" given "his recent inability to recall what he actually negotiated".

It was a wise decision by DUP strategists not to have the leader and deputy leader duck and dive around the betrayal but to put it up front themselves in a humorous way.

Senior party sources insisted to this reporter that amendments to the withdrawal Bill - which both Brussels and Dublin could live with - were realistic.

While the DUP's votes have been crucial, the suspicion remains that it has managed to ensure only a stay of execution on the Bill.

The Tories will fight any forthcoming election on this deal. If the opinion polls are right, they're on course to come back with a majority that removes all power from the DUP. The party knows that the stakes at the polls have never been higher.

"Make no mistake this will be the most unpredictable election outcome in the UK for a generation," Mrs Foster said.

"Every vote in every constituency will matter and the number of seats secured by this party will help shape the direction of Northern Ireland for our grandchildren."

Of all the Northern Ireland parties, the DUP has the most to lose. South Belfast and North Belfast are at severe risk.

In traditionally volatile South Antrim, Danny Kinahan will mount a strong challenge to win back the seat from Paul Girvan. Gavin Robinson should survive in East Belfast, but his party wisely never underestimates Naomi Long.

Mrs Foster walked on stage to Take That's Greatest Day. Saturday certainly wasn't that for her party.

It can get its mojo back with a good election. If so, expect normal business to be resumed at conference 2020. Tame and tepid will be but a distant memory.

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