Previewing this weekend’s DUP conference #dup17

Given the hiatus in devolved politics in Northern Ireland, this weekend’s DUP conference was always going to be a significant opportunity for the party to set out its thinking on the failed negotiations and their preferred way to keep Northern Ireland moving forward (to borrow their strapline).

The absence of an Executive, the absence of Ministerial statements and visits, and the absence of debates on the floor of the NI Assembly chamber have severely reduced the opportunities for DUP representatives to articulate their party’s policies and ideas.

The spotlight has swung away from Stormont to shine on the party’s ten MPs at Westminster who are propping up supporting the Conservative minority government, and media scrutiny is all the more intense because of the fabled £1 billion Tory-DUP deal.

I can’t remember the last time I spotted a national newspaper journalist or network reporter who had flown over to cover a party conference in Northern Ireland. The unprecedented interest from the ‘national’ media –around 200 have been accredited according to the News Letter, latecomers at £150 a pop as reported in the Irish News – has revamped the normal conference agenda which now finishes with the leader’s address and has no opportunity for Sammy Wilson’s joke-telling.

We’ll discover tomorrow how many of the other two conference staples (flags on delegates seats and a chorus of There’s Always Be An Ulster) will be sanitised.

It’s a big moment for the DUP and one that they’ll want to steer away from the evangelical zeal (and language) of some previous conferences to look modern and trustworthy as the eyes of the world’s press fall on their demeanour as much as their message.

09:20 – Welcome Lord Morrow of Clogher Valley, Party Chairman.
09:45 – Panel Discussion – Promoting Northern Ireland

10:20 – Speech – Emma Little Pengelly MP
10:45 – Panel Discussion – Valuing and Investing in our Public Services

11:15 – Speech – Diane Dodds MEP
11:25 – Panel Discussion – A Successful Brexit for the Next Generation

11:55 – Valuing our Mandate – Simon Hamilton MLA, Director of Elections
12:05 – Charity Support Appeal

12:15 – Deputy Leader Address – Rt. Hon. Nigel Dodds MP
12:45 – Lunch
14:15 – Panel Discussion – A United Kingdom for the Next Generation

15:00 – Party Leader Address – Rt. Hon. Arlene Foster MLA (broadcast live on BBC Two NI and BBC Parliament)
15:45 – Close of Conference

The conference agenda has plenty of opportunity to promote the best of Northern Ireland and highlight the need for investment in our public services (ie, transformation to improve using some of that £1bn), as well as articulate how Brexit impacts the local economy. There’s a gender balance across the keynote addresses, with a female MP, MEP and MLA taking half the podium slots.

Rumours circuated at last weekend’s Sinn Féin ard fheis that several Government ministers would attend and speak at the DUP conference. There’s certainly room in the agenda as well as the panels for some Tory faces to be squeezed in, although this could detract from the clarity of message around the DUP’s own policies.

If the current local political dysfunction drags too long into the new year, or if the Secretary of State finds his nuclear button and actually reverts to Direct Rule, collapsing and mothballing the devolved institutions, it would make sense for the DUP’s leader and deputy leader to swap roles to reflect where the power and influence lies. So tomorrow’s half hour deputy leader’s address by Nigel Dodds may be as significant to parse and analyse as Arlene Foster’s comments as leader.

David McCann and I will be hunkered down in one of the two press rooms reporting from the conference as usual with our fingers crossed that the wifi works (DUP did a good job supplying their own last year) and trying not to smirk as the enlarged press pack come to terms with the mobile phone coverage at La Mon Hotel.

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