The religious zeal and fervour normally on show at the November DUP conference was missing from much of today’s proceedings. The banter, jeering and spontaneous bursting into song was muted, actively discouraged (or forbidden). The flags, normally already laid out on seats when the delegates arrive, were only distributed after lunch. It seem that with supposed power in Westminster comes responsibility. Exhibitor numbers were down, though many more observers were present to listen to proceedings and doorstep elected representatives.
While much of the pre-registered press pack didn’t fly across from London, the party seemed acutely aware that any embarrassment would resound on a national stage, and not just in the local NI media.
The party’s preference for devolution to be restored echoed much of the sentiment at the Sinn Féin ard fheis in Dublin last weekend.
While party chair Lord Morrow was keen to stress in his opening that the DUP wouldn’t just sign up to “any deal … we’re not the UUP”, the party did borrow from the UUP’s conference stage and used a large video wall as their stage backdrop.
Deputy leader Nigel Dodds acknowledged that any deal would be “politically balanced” and that sentiment was also heard behind the scenes from party representatives and staff involved in the talks. However, there seemed to be no immediate urgency to cut a deal, particularly with the uncertainty about
when there will be an Irish General Election. whether
The baiting of other local parties was restrained. Party representatives were careful not to overemphasise the closeness of their relationship with the Conservatives and the levers of power that they now wielded. Issues like integrated education which former leader Peter Robinson once opined on from the same La Mon Hotel stage were not touched today. Nor did the leader or deputy leader address paramilitarism.
Many speakers lauded the DUP’s success in the General Election and at least eight of the party’s ten MPs were showcased in speeches, panels and videos throughout the day. Panel discussions peppered the programme with half hour sessions looking at:
- promoting Northern Ireland
- valuing and investing in our public services
- a successful Brexit for the next generation
- a United Kingdom for the next generation
Click on the links above to listen back to each session.
Emma Little-Pengelly, MP for Belfast South, said that her election was “a victory for unionism [and] a victory for all those communities across South Belfast who mobilised together and achieved, after 12 years, what many said was not possible”.
She explained that “I am committed to doing everything I can to make Northern Ireland a better place for all”. Her unionism supported “the political ideology of civil and religious liberty for all” with a history of “forging a pathway of democracy and rights … It has been Unionism and Unionists who have the strong record on rights and respect”. Though at no point during the day we’re many of the contentious ‘moral’ rights issues discussed. Later in her speech she commented:
“Gerry – it was never a war. When the political obituary of Gerry Adams is written, his legacy will not be the laughter of children, but the tears and sorrow of thousands of victims.”
With the Chief Minister Fabian Picardo awaiting the birth of his child, it fell to his deputy Joseph Garcia to bring the Brexit concerns of another outlying community.
MEP Diane Dodds picked up a conference theme of enhancing and renewing the value of the Union.
“The success and security of the Union continues to be our guiding star. Our convictions as Unionists are not limited to this side of the Irish sea. Any Brexit deal must benefit all regions of the UK. And it must protect, renew and enhance the historic ties between us. Brexit gives Northern Ireland an opportunity to revitalise and grow our position within the UK single market.”
She emphasised that “there will be no internal borders within the United Kingdom”.
“Northern Ireland’s Brexit solution will be the United Kingdom’s Brexit solution. We will leave the Customs Union and the Single Market alongside Great Britain. Friends, this is not just a constitutional reality but an economic necessity. 72% of trade in and out of Belfast Harbour is with Great Britain. And almost two thirds of local agri-food produce is sold within the UK.”
The EU wasn’t all bad.
“Brussels has made a positive contribution to progress through PEACE programmes. However its final act should not be to overreach into our sovereign affairs. The ghosts of Brussels will not haunt Northern Ireland’s dreams or aspirations.
“I have said many times that we are leaving the European Union – we are not leaving Europe … Local businesses, students and our world-class researchers should continue to have opportunities to link up with their neighbours. We could still participate in some EU programmes after we leave – but the terms must be right. The days of Brussels picking our pockets are over.”
She looked forward to being “able to shape the laws facing our farmers”.
“Plans for a new British Agricultural Policy are underway and this Party will work at Westminster to ensure that we continue to support productive farming. We will also take back control of British territorial waters. Come rain, hail or shine the DUP will fight for a fair deal for our farmers and fishermen.
Sammy Wilson introduced the Brexit panel with some wry commentary noting that “we’ve had the controversy of course with Lord Kilclooney and the Irish Taoiseach: I know we’re not allowed to call him an ‘Indian’, but the pair of them as far as the people in Larne are concerned, Coveney and Varadkar are a pair of cowboys”.
Two new councillors were welcomed into the DUP family this morning: Vasundhara Kamble (Lisburn & Castlereagh City Council) who resigned from Alliance saying that the party was “distant, cold and unfriendly”) and John Scott (Antrim & Newtownabbey Borough Council) who resigned from the UUP over party inaction over concerns that the then councillor Ben Kelso was living and working in Dublin.
Director of elections Simon Hamilton joked conference that he was probably no longer on Lady Sylvia Hermon’s Christmas card list. He singled out his “favourite result of the entire election … don’t tell Jim Shannon I said this, in North Down”.
“I’m sure Alex wouldn’t mind me saying but he was a bit of a reluctant recruit to running in June. Back in 2015, Alex didn’t do as well as he had hoped, and he didn’t want to underperform again and let the Party down. But, being the Party man that he is, and after some gentle arm twisting, he let his name go forward thinking that if he could add a thousand or so votes to his 2015 total it would be a good night. He shouldn’t have worried.
“I remember standing with Alex in the leisure centre in Bangor counting piles of votes and the realisation dawning on both of us that it was very, very close. At one stage, I think I even said to Alex that there was a danger he might actually win. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t to be, this time. I say ‘this time’ because North Down is our number one target seat for the next general election.”
While much of the conversation at the DUP conference was speculation about the strong possibility of an Irish general election before Christmas, Simon Hamilton cautioned the party members to be ready for another election in NI.
“We’ve learnt over the years that elections can be like Ballymena built London buses: there’ll be another one along soon. Knowing that the campaigning for the next election starts the day after the last one, we are already advanced in our planning for the next Council Elections and whenever the next Assembly or General Election comes, let’s be ready.”
Deputy leader Nigel Dodds (and leader of the group of ten MPs at Westminster) spoke for twenty five minutes, delivering a speech that was interleaved with humour and was for all intents and purposes an alternative leader’s speech.
“What a year this has been for Northern Ireland! A small team, with none of the resources of the big boys, but with a great manager and a great team spirit, delivering success and achievements unimagined only a few years ago. But enough about the DUP, what about our fantastic Northern Ireland football team and the Green and White Army! We are so proud of them and all our sports stars who bring so much credit to Northern Ireland around the world. And what a year it has been for the Democratic Unionist Party.”
Namechecking “Dr Paisley” and “Peter Robinson”, he characterised the DUP’s history as “one of advance, but also of struggle and adversity” and “of defying the odds, of standing up for what we believe in and of facing down those who oppose us”. The last twelve months had been a time of “such intense adversity”.
He applauded party leader Arlene Foster: “at a time when other political leaders are heading for the ‘Exit – Stage Left’, Arlene isn’t going away”.
“Those who thought you could be browbeaten, hounded or harassed out of politics didn’t reckon on the will and the resolve of a unionist woman from Fermanagh.”
On the political crisis that set in shortly after the 2016 DUP conference:
“When the republican leadership decreed that Martin McGuinness would have to resign his post as deputy First Minister, their real goal was to rob the DUP of power and influence. Well, conference, that strategy has hit a few bumps along the way. Little did our critics think that within six months the very existence of the Government of the United Kingdom would depend on the DUP and that Sinn Féin MPs and MLAs would be reduced to carping critics of everything and of everyone. Today, it is the DUP that stands in the heart of government, not in Northern Ireland, but across the United Kingdom.”
He cautioned delegates: “don’t’ be fooled when Sinn Féin talk about unfulfilled agreements”.
“They go very quiet when you ask them about the details. It is all a convenient smoke-screen to conceal reality and hide the truth, a rewriting of history in real time. Make no mistake. This was a manufactured crisis to cover their own blushes.”
Dodds outlined his analysis of “the bigger picture”.
“Sinn Féin brought down the institutions at Stormont not because republicanism was winning, but because the Assembly hadn’t become the conveyor belt to a united Ireland they had promised their people.
“Even now they are afraid to return to the Assembly to make their case and to fight their corner without the outcome of key issues being pre-cooked in advance. They are the ones who are running from the political battlefield pleading for others to help them out.
“That is not the sign of a strong movement, but of one that lacks the confidence of its convictions – and as we all know, they have plenty of convictions.”
His play on words elicited some laughter.
“In the early months of the year they thought they could cultivate chaos – to destabilise this Province and replace the DUP as Northern Ireland’s largest party. And because of a concerted and relentless campaign they very nearly did … but that merely served as a wake-up call to the people of Northern Ireland. What Sinn Féin did not reckon on was the resolve of the Ulster people and, the determination of unionism to stand up to the Sinn Féin threat. Under estimate the DUP at your peril!”
The deputy leader talked the party through the General Election wins.
“I know that there are some in the Conservative Party who now regret the Prime Minister’s decision to hold an early election, but it has helped transform the position of unionism at home and across the UK. It gave an enormous boost to the unionist people when we needed it and it helped reset and reshape the political map.”
Looking back …
“If I’m honest, I did not believe that in 2017 we were heading for a hung Parliament where the DUP would hold the balance of power, but looking back I don’t think it was an accident how things turned out. On reflection, it’s hard to imagine how the results could have done more to maximise our influence.”
The Independent reckoned this was an admission that the election result was “a gift from God”.
“A few more seats for the Conservatives and they could have ploughed on alone…had they won a fewer number of seats, even with our help they could not have secured a majority. We entered the negotiations with the guiding star of doing what was right not for the DUP, but for Northern Ireland in particular and the United Kingdom as a whole. And when the time came this party was not found wanting.
“For us the choice between a Conservative Party led by Theresa May and a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn was not a difficult one though that was not the decision for us to take. Though I have many good friends in the Labour Party the prospect of a Corbyn government was not one that any unionist could have countenanced.
“The real issue was whether we would support the government on a vote by vote basis or whether we would enter into a more comprehensive agreement. We always believed it was in the national interest to provide an element of stability for the Brexit negotiations and for this Parliament and the Conservative Party concluded the same.
“Though most of the attention has focussed on the £1 billion of new money to Northern Ireland, what we achieved for people across the UK is arguably even more significant. And conference, let me remind you what we did achieve for ALL of the people living in Northern Ireland and throughout the UK because, given the seemingly selective memory of our detractors, it would be easy to forget!
“Because it was right for the UK as a whole we insisted we would protect pensioners and there would be no change to the pensions triple lock or to the universal nature of the winter fuel allowance. And because our place in the world matters we also ensured the government agreed to the NATO commitment of spending 2% of GDP on the armed services. And because our farmers and rural communities matter so much we secured farm support right through to the end of the Parliament.
“Through the Co-ordination Committee we will continue to make sure that the government does the right thing not just for Northern Ireland but for the whole of the UK. That is why, though we won’t always trumpet it from the roof tops, we will make sure that the economic benefits of the United Kingdom extend to all parts of the nation and to all people regardless of their class or background.
“There are even some who say that if the DUP had written the Conservative Party’s election manifesto, they wouldn’t have needed our votes at all!”
He outlined why infrastructure investment had been placed “right at the top of our priorities”.
“… in an ever-changing world, broadband is not just a luxury but an economic necessity we made sure Northern Ireland would lead, not just the UK but Europe as a whole, in terms of ultra-fast broadband with a government investment of £150 million. We did this to ensure, once again, that every part of the Province will benefit. Every part – and every one.”
Dodds highlighted some of the NI-specific benefits of last week’s UK budget.
“Our goal is not to push some narrow DUP agenda but to deliver for the whole community in Northern Ireland. I was pleased that the Secretary of State was able to announce that the first allocations from the confidence and supply arrangement will be released shortly for our health and education services and we look forward to the early release of the other aspects of the deal.
“Though, I also say to the Secretary of State, that while we understand because of the talks process and the absence of Ministers, things have been more difficult, within a very short space of time that will not be a tenable excuse for not taking action. None of us want to see Direct Rule introduced but we are fast approaching the moment when it will be the lesser of two evils.
“I know there are many in other parties and across the UK who think that Northern Ireland got too good a deal from the Conservatives, but you know when I see how critical our votes have been over the last few weeks I do begin to wonder did we settle too easily! There are some who say each DUP MP is now worth as much as a Cristiano Ronaldo or a Lionel Messi. I’m insulted by that. It should be Steve Davies and Kyle Lafferty!
“We will work to ensure that the will of the British people on Brexit is delivered, while ensuring that nothing is done which undermines the integrity of the United Kingdom. Our votes in recent weeks have made the difference in ensuring progress through Parliament of the great EU Withdrawal Bill.
“But make no mistake: for us the integrity of the United Kingdom is non-negotiable. If the EU wants to insist on border check points on the island of Ireland that is a matter for them. There will be no internal UK border in the Irish Sea.”
On the prospect for a political deal between the Stormont parties:
“Of course there is no pressure on us to do a deal and any agreement will have to be politically balanced, but it is in Northern Ireland’s long term interests to have a functioning Executive. That doesn’t mean we rush into a deal that is not right and it doesn’t mean we need to do a deal overnight but our goal should be to see Stormont up and running again.
“That will inevitably mean taking difficult decisions but I believe that this party has always shown that the deals we have made in the past have been to Northern Ireland’s long term advantage. As the only meaningful unionist party left, we need to take decisions not just for the next few months but for the next few decades.
“It means we need to take decisions which can command the support not just of our core DUP vote, but support right across unionism and right across Northern Ireland. Because of our privileged position and our unique position within unionism, it is also incumbent upon us to take a longer and a broader view than ever before.”
It was clear that changes in sentiment and demography across Northern Ireland are playing on the DUP’s mind.
“We need to be alive to changes in demography and shifts in society and to make sure we are able to meet the challenges that lie ahead.”
Nigel Dodds finished his speech:
“Whether there is devolution or direct rule, whether we hold the balance of power at Westminster or lead the way at Stormont, our vision and our values will remain the same. Let us continue to serve the people in the spirit of those great Ulstermen and women who have gone before. Let us stand strong for the Kingdom, the Province and the people we love so much. As we approach the 100th anniversary of Northern Ireland, let us do all that we can to make sure the best is yet to come.”
After a hearty two course lunch [Ed – the media paid for more paltry fare!] delegates heard from the new Conservative Government Chief Whip Julian Smith who received a standing ovation at the end of his ten minute address. (First Secretary of State and Minister for the Cabinet Office Damian Green flew home on Friday evening after addressing the conference dinner.)
With the leader’s speech pushed back until the close of the conference, members were slow to arrive for some of the early business. But by 3pm the hall was full to capacity and all 500 seats were occupied by supporters.
After an introduction from first time conference attendee and South Down General Election candidate Diane Forsythe, party leader Arlene Foster walked on stage to Take That’s Get Ready For It and was enveloped in applause, at one point curtsying in response the prolonged adulation of the crowd who would have happily stood clapping and waving flags as long as the music kept pumping out.
“I count it an honour to be your leader as we embark on a new phase in the history of our party. Our conference takes place against the backdrop of unprecedented interest in the Democratic Unionist Party from right across the United Kingdom …
“The Democratic Unionist Party is not like other political parties. What marks us out is the dedication, loyalty and faithfulness of you – our members. So today, from the bottom of my heart, I say thank you.”
The last year had been “uncertain” with a surprise Assembly election that saw “good and faithful public servants … Maurice, Nelson, Brenda, Adrian and Philip” lose their seats”, and and Sinn Féin coming “within one seat and 1,200 votes of becoming Northern Ireland’s largest party”.
“That election was a wake-up call for unionists. We warned that republicans were cynically seeking to exploit the election as an opportunity to close the gap on unionism. Many didn’t believe our warnings. They said we were scaremongering.”
The Assembly poll was quickly followed by a snap General Election, “an opportunity [for the unionist electorate] to register support for our precious Union”.
“That momentous result put our Party in an unparalleled position at Westminster. For our part, we made it clear that our priority was to help bring stability to our nation. Do you remember how some said that the DUP would pursue a narrow agenda in our negotiations? What was secured was for everyone across Northern Ireland. Not narrow and not sectional. But a deal that benefits all of the people of Northern Ireland.
“And it wasn’t just an agreement about Northern Ireland. We have ensured that pensioners in every part of our Kingdom will have the security of knowing that the triple lock on pensions is safe and that the winter fuel payment will remain universal.
“We are the party for Northern Ireland but our unionism doesn’t end at the Irish Sea. We will always fight hard for the best deal for Northern Ireland but we care about vulnerable people in Bristol and Birmingham every bit as much as those in Belfast.
“That of course is the very essence of our unionism. Whether English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish, we aren’t competitors or rivals in this United Kingdom. We are bound together as one. Stronger together than apart. It is an honour underpinned with a solemn responsibility to be able to help bring stability to our United Kingdom in these challenging times and we do it seized with an abiding sense of duty to the national interest.”
The Fermanagh & South Tyrone MLA said that her party would “avail of every opportunity now and in the future to advance the Union as a whole and Northern Ireland’s place within it”.
“From the UK’s entry to the old European Community to the failure of member states to agree to reform the European Union, this Party has been consistently sceptical about Brussels. Much has been said about Brexit. Listening to some quarters you would be forgiven for thinking that life, as we know it, will end.
“During the referendum campaign and ever since, some of those who advocated ’remain’ have argued that the UK’s departure from the EU will result in a hard border on the island of Ireland. I said from this platform twelve months ago that no one wishes that to be the case.
“We want our border to remain open for people to move freely north and south for work, for education and as tourists. We want to see continued trading across the border in the economic interests of our two countries.
“I also said that any exit deal must recognise the reality of our geography and of our history and that for us we wanted to get the best deal for Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom as a whole.
“We want a sensible Brexit. A Brexit that works for Northern Ireland and for the United Kingdom. However, we will not support any arrangements that create barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom or any suggestion that Northern Ireland, unlike the rest of the UK, will have to mirror European regulations.
“I have written to the heads of government of each of the EU 27 member states setting out our views and Diane will continue her work in Brussels in the coming days to reinforce our position.”
However, in common with the British and Irish governments, no actual specific solutions to the conundrum of borders, customs and the movement of people were suggested.
Arlene Foster expressed her conviction “to make Northern Ireland as good as we know it can be” and “to make life better for all of our people”.
“Regardless of some of the propaganda the truth is the Union is secure and no matter how many times we are told that “the North isn’t British”, Northern Ireland is British and British it will remain. I was motivated to enter public life precisely because of my desire to protect and preserve Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom.
“But defending the Union isn’t our only job. We are also charged with the crucial task of advancing our vision for Northern Ireland. Perhaps precisely because in past years we have had to guard against those who would destroy the Union, we haven’t always spent sufficient time spelling out that positive vision.”
She spoke of a “need to spend more time outlining the kind of Northern Ireland we want to see flourish and why that is best advanced through being part of the Union”.
“A country is nothing without its people. A society’s real strength isn’t generated by its GDP but by its people. I never cease to be astounded by the exceptional nature of our people.
“Northern Ireland is all too often characterised by what divides us, but I am always amazed by how so many of the people I meet might have very different life experiences but almost all share the same Northern Ireland values.
“They are as humble as they are hardworking. They are deeply devoted to their families. They believe in personal responsibility, but they’ll not be found wanting when a neighbour is in need. They possess a compassion for those who are less well-off no matter where in the world they live. And they have a pride in our country and the achievements of all our people.
“But what I believe sets us apart. What marks us out as special and what gives us a real edge over others is a spirit of never giving up. It is embedded deep in our DNA. We experience adversity yet face it down. Through all the tough times of the Troubles, our people never stopped believing in the promise and potential of Northern Ireland.
“We owe it to the generation that came through the Troubles and – maybe even more so to those generations that follow – to fulfil that promise and potential. Northern Ireland people want their children and their grandchildren to do better than them, to realise their dreams and to enjoy life in ways that were maybe denied to them.”
The DUP leader said “we are the people’s Party … the Party that puts people first”.
“The Party that prioritises attracting jobs and investment and improving our health services and our schools and our housing and our infrastructure so that all of our people can live better lives.
“We are the Party for people trying – but finding it difficult – to get a foot on the property ladder for the first time. For young families who find the cost of childcare a barrier to work. For the pensioner who has worked hard all their life and just wants a retirement free from worry about who will look after them and how it’ll be paid for.For the small business owner who finds their ability to grow and create more jobs stifled by unnecessary bureaucracy and red tape.
“They are the people we serve. They are the people that motivate me to keep moving forward. In everything we do. In everything we say. And in everything we try to achieve as a Party. We must be the Party for the people.”
Government was “there to protect people, provide the vulnerable with a safety net and act when and where markets fail to serve the people properly”. Channelling her inner Leo Varadkar, the DUP Foster echoed the Irish Taoiseach’s phrase about “people who get up early in the morning”!
“Our mission is to do all that we can to make life a little easier for people who get up early in the morning, get their kids to school, go and do a hard day’s work. Our mission is absolutely about affirming our British identity. Upholding the constitutional status of Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom. But our mission is also about ensuring that people all across the UK can have a good life too.
“I want everyone in Northern Ireland regardless of whether they’re unionists or nationalists or don’t consider themselves to be either, to enjoy a good quality of life and to be able to pass on to the next generation a better Northern Ireland filled with opportunities for all.”
Cynicism was admonished.
“It’s popular to bash Stormont and to criticise devolution. To say it has delivered nothing. But the truth is that during devolved government – while far from perfect – there were record levels of inward investment, scores of new schools built, miles of new roads constructed and hundreds of millions more spent on health.
“While we have more influence than ever before at Westminster we also want to see our local institutions functioning and delivering for the people of Northern Ireland. Making our mission a reality is best achieved by getting the Assembly and the Executive back doing what the people elected us to do.”
While rivals for votes, the UUP, and their leader Robin Swann weren’t mentioned by name during the speech, the DUP’s ideological opponents Sinn Féin were regularly namechecked.
“That is why we would have re-established the Executive eight months ago without any pre-conditions. We would have got the government going again while dealing with issues of language and culture in parallel, but such a pragmatic approach was rejected by the ‘heavy’ brigade in Sinn Féin. That shouldn’t surprise us.
“Let’s not forget how Sinn Féin stopped the Executive from meeting for almost a year over policing and justice. Or how they allowed over £150 million to be lost as they delayed the implementation of welfare reforms that, in the end, they largely agreed to.
“They walked away from office earlier this year knowing what that would mean for public services and the hurt and harm it would cause hardworking people. They protest against health cuts yet held that very portfolio in the last Executive where they would have been able to do more good than complaining at public meetings.
“They moan about what they call “Tory austerity” yet their Finance Minister failed to bring in a Budget leaving it to a Conservative Secretary of State to legislate for our Budget at Westminster. They complain about Brexit all the while refusing to form an Executive or take their seats in Parliament.
“They go to their conference and glory in the murder of the IRA. Today conference my thoughts are with the victims of Enniskillen, Kingsmills and La Mon and the many thousands of innocent victims who have conducted themselves with such dignity over the decades.
“Yet when you listen to Sinn Féin they blame everyone else. It’s time Sinn Féin got serious.”
Over the last few months, the DUP team at the talks process had made “some progress … but that can only be built upon if all sides are genuinely serious about obtaining a deal that is balanced”.
Using language similar to deputy leader Nigel Dodds, Arlene Foster spoke about a “balanced deal”.
“This party will conclude a balanced deal but we will not be party to a one-sided arrangement that rewards intransigent behaviour.
“Northern Ireland needs a government and we cannot continue without Ministers. Time is short and those in Sinn Féin blocking the restoration of local decision making need to decide whether they want to do business with us or have direct rule ministers in place.
“I still believe that devolution is the best way to govern Northern Ireland but to do that in a way that delivers for all of our people we need serious partners in government. One key element of the talks that is critical is that if any new Executive is to be restored it must be on a sustainable basis and all parties who share that view must insist on that being the case.”
While the constraints around the RHI Inquiry mean I shouldn’t be too surprised that I didn’t hear ‘RHI’ mentioned once at the DUP conference – though La Mon Hotel has been powering its heating system with wood pellets for well over a decade (and long before the RHI scheme and scandal) – the language elephant in the room was given an airing.
“I said back in the summer that this Party was prepared to legislate for the Irish language in the context of legislating for the plurality of cultures that exist in Northern Ireland. The Irish language is spoken and enjoyed by thousands of people in all parts of Northern Ireland. It does no damage to our unionism or the Union we cherish.
“I respect the Irish language and those who speak it. However, respect isn’t a one-way street. Respect works both ways. It is time that Sinn Féin started to respect our British culture. For too long they have shown nothing but disdain and disrespect for the national flag, the Royal Family, the Armed Forces, British symbols, the constitutional reality and the very name of this country.
“So we are up for respect. And we’re up for rights. Republicans like to lecture us about rights. They’re fond of rights now. They weren’t so concerned about that most fundamental of rights – the right to life – during the Troubles. We are for rights. We respect rights. What we oppose is using the cloak of rights as a Trojan horse designed to break unionists.
“I know that our politics can be tough. Brutal even. But I am passionate in my belief that politics has to be about making a difference in the lives of every single one of our citizens.
“Back in the Spring, I visited Our Lady’s Grammar School in Newry. I came away with two things. A greater understanding of the genuine passion and love that many have for the Irish language and a beautiful gift of a framed picture. The picture was inscribed with the words ‘Together we are strong’.”
Beautiful gift from Our Lady’s Grammar School, Newry which I visited today. pic.twitter.com/vAU7nkWTCx
— Arlene Foster (@DUPleader) April 26, 2017
“Those words really registered with me. If we are to generate the opportunities for the pupils at Our Lady’s and all the other schools across Northern Ireland to fulfil their potential then we have a far, far better chance if we are moving forward together.”
Arlene Foster marked her speech’s conclusion with a quote from C. S. Lewis: “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending”.
“C. S. Lewis was right. We cannot go backwards and undo what has been done. We cannot start again from somewhere different. We have to deal with things the way they are. But that doesn’t mean the end is already written.
“We can shape a future for the next generation that is so much better than what we had to experience. Build a Northern Ireland where everyone can live a good life. Create a country where ambition and aspiration are encouraged, and opportunities exist to fulfil them.
“I love this country. I want it to be the best that we all know it can be. That is my vision. That is our mission. Together we are strong and together, standing strong we will achieve that mission and move Northern Ireland forward to a better future.”
Joined on stage by deputy leader Nigel Dodds, Arlene Foster took her seat before the party members had finished clapping. Rev William McCrea closed proceedings and introduced the National Anthem, but resisted leading the traditional rendition of There’ll Always Be An Ulster. This year’s conference was one of public restraint for a party that are unequivocally exuberant about their power and appeal.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about, reports from, live-tweets and live-streams civic, academic and political events and conferences. He delivers social media training/coaching; produces podcasts and radio programmes; is a FactCheckNI director; a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland; and a member of the Corrymeela Community.