“We have cause for optimism” said Stephen Dunne, North Down MLA in his mid-morning speech. He was referring to the party’s “strength and the determination to defend Northern Ireland’s place in the Union”.
But walking into the Crowne Plaza Hotel at Shaws Bridge, I wondered if “optimism” was on the minds of DUP delegates returning to the scene of leadership challenges and fractious votes over the last 18 months. Today was their first conference since the pandemic, and the first since they dropped to be the second largest party in the NI Assembly.
Previous DUP conferences – like other parties’ events — had a very social feel, friends meeting and catching up nearly as important as the platform business. Today’s meetup was an altogether smaller and more select affair. For those obsessed with counting seats, it was definitely a sparser layout than previous years – 233 seats set out at the start, with some more added before the leader’s speech – perhaps only half the numbers that would have attended in the conference’s packed heyday at La Mon Hotel when Peter Robinson was at the helm and exhibitors were packed into every corner of the venue and there had to be two lunch sittings. (To my eye, attendance was about the same as the Alliance Party conference in the same venue in March.)
Election success might have engendered optimism, but the most recent Assembly poll was a cause for introspection rather than celebration. Examples of solid delivery might have provided evidence for optimism. But investment in playparks and the 2017 Confidence and Supply Agreement with its £150/£165m broadband scheme (the amount claimed varied between Lyons’ and Donaldson’s speeches) were the repeatedly cited examples.
So it turned out to be a conference of two halves. The early sessions were low key and included a panel on childcare and early years, as well as an introduction to ten local councillors, and speeches by MLAs Stephen Dunne, Michelle McIlveen (Education Minister) and Gordon Lyons (director of elections). Party chair Lord Morrow expressed his concern and condolences to the tragedy at Creeslough. The death of Queen Elizabeth was marked with a video of reflections, a minute’s silence and the National Anthem.
The hall filled up as the leader Jeffrey Donaldson MP was welcomed to the stage, hailed as “the undisputed voice of unionism”. His speech was well received, peppered with enthusiastic applause and rewarded at the end with sustained cheering and applause. The members in attendance were happy to stand up for their latest leader. The front row was packed with the current ministers (included the most recent former leader), MLAs and MPs with no notable exceptions.
Earlier in the morning, Gordon Lyons had devoted a big chunk of his speech to critique and criticism of Sinn Féin. Donaldson covered some of the same ground, and finished with a doubling down on the DUP’s only conditions for returning to the NI Executive, with what amounted to a ‘bring it on’ challenge to the Secretary of State’s threat of an Assembly election at the end of the year.
The enthusiastic response to Donaldson’s first conference speech as leader will comfort him. He might feel optimistic if he’d visited the joy-filled creche next door to the press room. For the record, there was no evidence of in-fighting and everyone seemed to be playing peacefully (in the crèche at least). But the drop in turnout will worry him in case it disguises an unseen malaise and the possibility that some of those who stayed aware aren’t on board with his leadership and direction of travel? His messages about unionist unity will also have wound up the TUV and UUP.
There were gaps and inconsistencies in the messaging at the conference. Donaldson was alone among the platform speakers in being able to say that unionists might also identify as Irish (or Scottish or Welsh) along with their Britishness. His expression of inclusion or togetherness is more open than his colleagues.
I didn’t hear any mention of the special scheme to enhance NI Protocol implementation that had snuck under the radar of all eleven councils without much comment under dominating the news in the last few days. The petty exclusion of journalist Amanda Ferguson from the conference – a decision reversed after about an hour and initially blamed on her moderation of a panel at last weekend’s Ireland’s Future event in Dublin – was in sharp contrast with the rhetoric from platform speakers about “moving forward together” and working for people who didn’t necessarily share unionist ideology.
Greatest Day by Take That boomed out at the start and end of Donaldson’s speech. The same music was used by Arlene Foster back in 2019. Based on today’s conference, it could be some time yet before the DUP experience their next ‘greatest day’ at the ballot box or reform of the NI Protocol. But for once, as delegates leave the Crowne Plaza hotel, none of them seem to be talking about resigning or looking for a new leader. The ship has been steadied. But there are still rocks and rip currents to navigate in the coming months.
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Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s speech
I am delighted that after a three-year absence we have been able to come together for our Autumn Conference and to meet again following the devastating impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with all those who lost loved ones during this tumultuous period.
I also want to express our sympathies to those families who have been bereaved in the tragic events in Donegal yesterday afternoon and those injured as a result of this explosion are foremost in our thoughts.
We assure the people of Cresslough of our collective prayers and want them to know that they will continue to be in our thoughts in the days ahead.
Much has happened since we last met together – we fought a General Election, we witnessed the re-establishment of the local Executive and Assembly after a three-year absence, we have lived through and emerged from the pandemic, and we have celebrated the centenary of Northern Ireland and taken tough decisions in our opposition to the Protocol. We have fought an Assembly election and yes, at times, we have focused more on what divided us rather than what unites us. No one ever said politics was predictable!
In recent weeks we have been deeply saddened and powerfully moved by the loss of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Her passing has been felt intensely across Northern Ireland, and our nation as a whole. We have all been truly blessed to live through her reign and we give thanks to God for her unwavering service to our United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. As we look forward, we do so confidently, recognising that our new King, Charles III will reign mindful of the wonderful example set by Her late Majesty.
Today as I stand before you, making my first conference speech as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, I do so humbled and thankful for the support you have given me since taking up this burden of responsibility.
I am deeply honoured to be your leader, and your servant, and as we look to the future I again pledge that I will never take your trust or your labours for granted. As we have proved over many years, we work best when we work as a team. This party is at its best when we say what we mean and mean what we say. Currently and in this chapter of our history we are in such a time.
I believe in public service and making a difference and in the time ahead my guiding principle will continue to be channelling all of my efforts and endeavours to work for the betterment of all the people, as we work to make Northern Ireland a better place to live and work.
But most of all I – we – believe in the Union and we will never apologise for working to promote the benefits of the Union and to secure our position within the United Kingdom. (applause)
I have said it before and it is worth repeating, my vision for unionism is a simple, positive and a modern one. I believe in Northern Ireland and its people. I believe that Northern Ireland is best served by being part of the United Kingdom and that our four nations of the UK are together stronger than their constituent parts.
In support of that Union, I want us to build a better Northern Ireland, not just for those who share our unionism, but for all our people. I want to build the broadest coalition of support for that vision from right across the community. A coalition which includes those of us whose support for the Union is based on a cultural, social and historic affinity with Great Britain and those whose support is grounded more in reason and realism of what is in the best interests for them and their families.
For me unionism should have no barriers to entry beyond a belief that Northern Ireland is best served as a part of the UK. We want to make Northern Ireland a place of peace, stability and prosperity for all. We want to see people of Northern Ireland making a full contribution to our national life – whether that be in public service, military service, in arts and sport, or the economic and business life of our nation.
We look back with pride at the contribution and sacrifice made by Northern Ireland’s men and women over the last one hundred years.
Equally, we look forward with confidence when we see that outside London, Northern Ireland is the top location in the United Kingdom for foreign direct investment, and we know that our strongest asset is the ingenuity of our people.
While I celebrate the past and our many achievements, my unionism does not hanker on returning back to a bygone age but looks forward to a new era. However Conference, some of our friends, family and colleagues sacrificed their all to protect Northern Ireland and to give us our future. We will not allow their memories to be sullied by the re-writing of history and the attempted justification for violence. Let us as a conference send a clear message that murder and mayhem is never justified. There was always an alternative to violence. (applause)
We meet at an opportune time in the political calendar. Before we look forward and set out how we will face the challenges ahead I want to thank each and every one of you who contributed to our election campaign in May.
Once again we established ourselves as the undisputed voice of unionism in Northern Ireland. This is not a position we take for granted and we will work to further strengthen and build upon our position.
To our talented DUP team of candidates who day after day knocked the doors on the campaign trail and fought for every vote, I salute you and thank you for all that was accomplished. Sadly not every candidate was elected and already we are focused on winning back seats lost to our opponents. It may be the candidates who take the plaudits but we all know that it is only made possible because of the hard work of the teams around them.
The election marked a transition for our Party. Inevitably in politics, as in life, the baton of leadership and public service passes from one generation to the next. I want to put on record our sincere appreciation to Robin Newton, William Humphrey, Paula Bradley, George Robinson and Jim Wells for whom the 5th May marked the end of their service in the Assembly.
I know that we were all saddened by the loss of Mervyn Storey in North Antrim and Peter Weir in Strangford but I want to thank them for their service and dedication to their constituents and our party. I am absolutely certain we have not seen the last of either Mervyn or Peter and I know that they have further significant contributions to make to public service and to our party. (applause)
The election also opened a new chapter of public service for David Brooks, Phillip Brett, Brian Kingston, Alan Robinson and Diane Forsythe. They are welcome additions to our Assembly team as they join with colleagues who continue their service and who are seasoned in the public arena.
Since our last conference in 2019 we have sadly felt the pain of loss within our Assembly group and our Party with the passing of Gordon Dunne and Christopher Stalford. We have also lost a number of faithful party members at all levels of our organisation including Alderman Junior McCrum, Councillor Paul Hamill and most recently Alderman John Finlay. These representatives all served their constituents with distinction for many years. We treasure our memories of them all and hope that even today their families will take comfort from the legacy of duty and service they have left us. (applause) We were delighted beyond measure to see Gordon’s son Stephen elected to represent North Down in May and to hear from him this morning. Well done Stephen.
And while some so-called commentators would love to see this party obliterated, when you look at the young faces elected last May I’ve got bad news for those commentators – this Party has a strong future and unionism will be here when they are long gone. (applause)
At Westminster your Parliamentary team, both in the Commons and the Lords, continues to actively speak up for the interests of Northern Ireland.
Our ability to influence outcomes has been felt across a range of issues and most particularly, working with our DUP Ministers, we have been able to successfully press the Government on a range of cost-of-living measures to ensure the people of Northern Ireland receive the same level of support as those in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Working for Northern Ireland at Westminster and making a real difference to the lives of people is perhaps best highlighted through the delivery of broadband.
In 2017 we secured through the Confidence and Supply Agreement £150 million of public investment that delivered fibre broadband to almost ninety thousand rural premises across Northern Ireland. Whilst Sinn Fein questioned the need for public money to be spent on high-speed broadband for rural dwellers this intervention has been the most transformative investment for our rural economy since the electricity network was extended.
Northern Ireland at 82% full fibre broadband is already massively ahead of England on 67%, Scotland on 60%, Wales on 49% and the Republic of Ireland on 41%. At current build rates, by 2025, Northern Ireland will be the first country in these islands where fibre is available to 99% of our premises. Earlier this year the Financial Times ranked OECD countries by full-fibre rollout and Northern Ireland was beaten only by South Korea and Japan.
This has not only provided essential connectivity to rural dwellers but makes Northern Ireland the best-connected place in these islands, and one of the best connected anywhere in the world – a key selling point to potential investors considering Northern Ireland as a place to establish a new or expanded business operation.
Mr. Chairman, that was a project developed by the DUP in 2016. We secured the money from London in 2017 and our DUP Economy Ministers awarded the contract in 2020. While Sinn Fein continues to moan and criticise from the outer precincts of Westminster we are there seeking to make a real difference on the ground. (applause)
Indeed, you would sometimes be forgiven for thinking that Sinn Fein hope the UK Government will not assist people here so that they can advance their own narrow political agenda.
Just as during the hugely challenging days of the pandemic, the uncomfortable truth for some remains that it is the UK Government at Westminster that has the financial firepower and the resources to adequately deal with the current cost of living squeeze.
This is a key benefit of the Union. And tackling the difficulties created by the cost of living will continue to be an absolute priority for the DUP. (applause) We understand the challenges that homes and businesses are facing and we will fight day and night to ensure they receive the support that they need.
Over the last term of the Assembly our DUP Ministers and MLAs have been working to deliver on the policies and priorities that matter to the people of Northern Ireland. Our Ministers have made a significant contribution in shaping the work of the wider Executive as well as leading their respective departments.
In the Economy Department our DUP Ministers secured £286.8 million for the roll out of the Economic Recovery Action Plan including delivering the £140 million High Street Voucher Scheme. This provided over 1.4m people with a pre-paid £100 card to help inject an economic stimulus to our High Streets and re-orientate people back to the High Street and away from online shopping trends.
In Education our DUP Ministers have increased funding for some of our most vulnerable members of society with spend on children with Special Educational Needs rising by 77% during the last mandate. In the last Assembly term, we also introduced the most progressive School Starting Age legislation within the UK.
In Agriculture and Environment our Minister distributed over £28m in Covid-19 business support to farm businesses which was the most comprehensive package of support anywhere in the British Isles or Europe and we delivered a £4m Rural Halls Refurbishment Scheme.
In addition, our team worked to introduce ground-breaking Climate Change legislation with balanced protections for agriculture and published a Green Growth Strategy.
I thank Gordon, Michelle and Edwin for all of their hard work on delivering flagship programmes and initiatives for the betterment of everyone in Northern Ireland. (applause) And I always want to express our appreciation to Paul, Diane, Peter, Paul and Gary for their significant contributions in Ministerial office. Thank you colleagues for your hard work.
Conference, the outcome of May’s election must act as a wake-up call to unionists across Northern Ireland. It is vital that lessons are learned in its aftermath, and before we return to the polls. Unionism won 44% of the seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
And as unionists, we must be honest with one another; it wasn’t nationalists or others who caused the loss of several pro-Union seats at the election. That was the direct result of a splintered unionism where seats were lost in Strangford, in North Antrim and in East Antrim. Divided unionism loses seats not wins seats. (applause)
Each of those constituencies had four unionist quotas – enough votes to elect four unionist seats – yet in each constituency only three unionists were elected. This is not sustainable if we want to win. It is no good talking about the theory that you cannot split the vote in a PR election when the real-world evidence shows pro-Union representation weakened because of those splinters and divisions within the pro-Union family. It has to end.
Those of us in this room are mature enough to know that delivering a more cohesive unionism cannot be achieved by attacking fellow unionists. It requires co-operation and effort from all who want to strengthen our place within the Union. Everywhere I go, I get one consistent message from unionists, they want us to work together. (applause) They see that fractured unionism cost seats, and just five months ago gifted victories to our opponents.
Whilst some are content to manufacture arguments with fellow unionists, I am not. I have more in common with my unionist brothers and sisters than that which divides us.
This Party believes in unionists working together and we stand ready to work in common purpose with our fellow unionists from other parties, and none, as together we promote the benefits of the Union.
As your leader I will leave no stone unturned in my quest to build the unity of unionists that our people are crying out for. We have a shared belief in being part of this great United Kingdom. We all cheer the British Team in the Olympics; we are immensely proud of our Armed Forces, and we all get the tingle in our spine as the National Anthem is played and the Union Flag is raised.
We are not just unionists because we were born here. We are not just unionists because we support our constitutional monarchy. We are not just unionists because the United Kingdom has an international standing in the G7, the UN Security Council and in NATO.
We are unionists because it makes economic sense to be part of one of the biggest economies in the world. We are unionists because we cherish our National Health Service and will continue to make it a priority for this party and for the people of Northern Ireland.
And we are unionists because we love the United Kingdom and its diversity. We can be Northern Irish and British. We can be Scottish or Welsh and British. And yes, we can be Irish and British.
Membership of the United Kingdom gives Northern Ireland, with a population of less than two million people, a place on the world stage. So let’s remember the benefits of the United Kingdom. Let’s remember those who came before us, who fought hard and sacrificed all in the cause of freedom and liberty in our nation’s darkest hour. (applause)
Being part of the Union is good for everyone in Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland is good for the United Kingdom. We shouldn’t be afraid to make the case for the Union at every opportunity and as we move forward, we will work collectively to do so using every opportunity available both at home as well as beyond our shores. The case for leaving the UK is based on economic myths and fantasy politics; but the political facts of life are unionist. (applause)
Conference, I am very clear, and if I send out no other message to our unionist communities, it is this: it is in our unity that we can find our strength.
In less than seven months time we will be fighting the local council elections across the eleven councils in Northern Ireland. DUP Councillors in each area are the grass roots of the Party, the unsung heroes who are on the front-line when it comes to serving the needs of people in every rural district, hamlet, village, town and city across Northern Ireland.
As this council term draws to a close I want to thank all our councillors for their efforts and their sacrifices. For those who have already indicated their wish to retire, we are forever indebted to you for your years of service, often standing in the gap at a time when few others would do so and when times were tough. Thank you. (applause)
We will field a strong team of candidates, representing experience as well as fresh faces, who will go forward committed to delivering on our manifesto commitments and ensuring the most efficient use of rate-payers money whilst delivering every-day front line services in their council area.
Sadly in some of our council areas the voices and views of unionists have been marginalised in the cause of Republican triumphalism. We are determined to continue putting a spotlight on such shameful behaviour and to speak up for unionists in those areas.
As you heard from our council representatives on the panel this morning we will be able to present a strong DUP record of achievement as we campaign for a fresh mandate in the run up to the May 2023 council poll.
Mr Chairman, this party worked hard to re-negotiate and restore devolution in 2006 and 2007 because we believed it was better to bring decision-making closer to the people. In those days devolution laid the foundations for peace and prosperity. It allowed us to change the image of Northern Ireland from a place known for conflict to one that has so much to offer. We can look back with pride at much of what was accomplished.
Today when you look around you will see that we live in a Northern Ireland that is a place transformed. No matter how difficult politics has been, devolved government has allowed Northern Ireland to prosper. I still believe in devolved government but I’m realistic enough to recognise that it has suffered serious reputational damage in recent years. Our system of government is far from perfect, and certainly it needs further measured reform, but we believe in the principle of devolution.
I don’t need to tell you that many of the decisions that we have objected to most over the last ten years have not been taken at Stormont but at Westminster. I think particularly of abortion. In just a matter of hours, MPs in Westminster changed Northern Ireland from being one of the safest places for the unborn to being one of the most dangerous places in Europe.
Anyone who believes that having no say in our future is a recipe for success simply hasn’t learnt the lessons of history. A fully functioning devolved government, built on solid foundations and working with London can make Northern Ireland a better place by fixing our health service, by building more schools, by training more GPs and by helping working families through the provision of better childcare support.
However, the structures of government at Stormont can only work with the support and buy in of unionists and nationalists.
The imposition of the Protocol upon Northern Ireland has damaged and undermined the workings of our institutions. They cannot work without the restoration of the delicate political balance that was negotiated over many years and which has been disrupted by the Protocol.
In February of this year, after repeated warnings and the exhausting of patience we withdrew our First Minster. For over two years we urged the Government to get a better deal, only to be repeatedly rebuffed by the EU and told the Protocol was the only show in town and was not open for renegotiation.
On 1 July last year I warned that devolution and the Protocol were not compatible. Again, on 9 September last year I repeated my warning. I do so again today.
When a trade border, a steel border, a pet border, a guide-dog border, a frozen food border, a plant border, a VAT border, a medicine border, a passenger border, a grocery border and a soil border were erected between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, then of course it was going to devastate political relationships and the delicate political balance in Northern Ireland.
Every day Northern Ireland is subjected to some new Protocol problem that bedevils a business or a consumer. This is not a unionist question or a nationalist question. Equally it is not a question of either addressing the Protocol or addressing the cost-of-living crisis.
The Protocol is making a massive contribution to that cost-of-living crisis. At a time when households and businesses can least afford it, haulage costs between GB and Northern Ireland have risen by nearly 30% as a direct result of the Protocol. Where do we think that increase goes to. It goes onto the goods we buy. It goes into the pockets of every consumer in Northern Ireland.
Under the Protocol, there is a 25% tariff on the steel used to build our schools, roads, hospitals, and houses if the steel comes from Great Britain. The trade friction between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is fuelling the cost-of-living crisis as well as restricting consumer choice. The reality is that the Protocol is driving up the cost of living for every single household in Northern Ireland. That is why this party will work relentlessly to have this burden removed. (applause)
During the election campaign we were honest with the electorate that the Protocol represented an existential threat to the future of Northern Ireland’s place within the Union and that it must be replaced by arrangements that fully restored Northern Ireland’s place within the UK Internal Market. The strong mandate that we received in the election has caused others to recognise the validity of our position and to act. As such, we welcomed and supported the introduction of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill at Westminster. If fully enacted, this legislation has the potential to provide the solution that will free Northern Ireland from the grip of the Protocol and restore our rights as British citizens to trade freely with the rest of our own nation under Article 6 of the Acts of Union.
We also meet at a time when the UK Government has recommenced talks with the EU on the Protocol. As a party we welcome those talks and wish those involved well. The issue of which route is travelled – whether the talks with the EU are successful or whether the Protocol Bill at Westminster becomes law is not actually the dominant question. For us what is important is the destination reached.
So let me be clear: either the Prime Minister delivers the provisions of the Protocol Bill by legislation or by negotiation and ensures that our place in the United Kingdom is restored, or, there will be no basis to re-enter Stormont. (applause)
On this issue it is not words but actions we need to see, and we will judge any outcome on the basis of actions not words.
Some lay great emphasis on cutting the number of checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain. If that were to happen they say all our problems would be sorted notwithstanding that the Protocol has not yet been fully implemented. The truth of course is that the checks on the Irish Sea border are the symptom of the underlying problem namely that Northern Ireland is subject to a different set of laws imposed upon us by a foreign entity without any say or vote by any elected representative of the people of Northern Ireland. And that is not acceptable. (long applause)
As Great Britain has secured its freedom to de-regulate or to move in a different direction of travel on aid or taxation Northern Ireland is going to constantly face new barriers because we are tied to a different set of laws from the rest of the United Kingdom. That is simply not sustainable and is actually incompatible with devolution, which requires the support of unionists as well as nationalists if it is to function.
So for the benefit of those watching in London and Brussels, let me restate our clear commitment. If decisive action is taken on the Protocol that restores our place fully within the United Kingdom, yeah, then yes, this Party will take its place once again in a fully functioning Executive.
But Conference, I know in the stand we’re taking, we have the support of many thousands across Northern Ireland who want us to prevail on this most fundamental issue. We do not fear the prospect of a fresh election, far from it. If in the absence of his government righting the wrongs visited upon Northern Ireland, the Secretary of State calls an election, we are ready and we will take our case to the people as the lead party of unionism because we’ve never been afraid to take our case to the people. (applause)
Conference, we will campaign as never before to secure a further fresh mandate from the people. So the Government needs to tread sensitively and act wisely if they wish to see unionist confidence rebuilt, and the conditions created for durable power sharing.
The prize of moving on from the long shadow of the Northern Ireland Protocol is great. And that prize is not just for unionism but for all of Northern Ireland and it is not just for the UK but for the EU as well. Just imagine how future arrangements could transform relationships within Northern Ireland, throughout the United Kingdom and with our nearest neighbours in the Republic of Ireland.
With the 25th Anniversary of the Belfast Agreement fast approaching, surely this is the position all governments and parties will want to be in? When we come through these current challenges, I want to see a period of renewed focus on the everyday issues that matter. We want to work with others collectively so we can implement our plan for the health service and get on with delivering help for working families and creating more and better jobs.
But first we must secure the solid foundations for moving forward and clear away the debris of the Protocol years. We need to restore the cross-community consensus that is essential for the political institutions to function and to succeed.
Colleagues, in the coming weeks we may be tested as never before. Let us not be found wanting but rather rise to the challenges ahead so that when future generations look back on this period, they will be able to say of us that our legacy was not based on short-term fixes but on the long-term solutions we secured for all the people in Northern Ireland. For when we do that, this party will succeed, but more importantly Northern Ireland will succeed and the Union will endure.
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.