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By Councillor Stephen Nicholl
A few weeks ago I was listening to William Hague at the Conservative conference and on Saturday I had the opportunity to listen to him again at the Ulster Unionist Party conference. A seasoned performer Hague perhaps took on the leadership too early in his career but he will provide the backbone of Conservative Governments for many years. His attendance on Saturday continued the process of developing the partnership between the Conservatives and Ulster Unionists despite the attempts of other parties to introduce friction.
Like all major conferences the Ulster Unionist Party conference has become a carefully choreographed media event. Journalists attend because they have to but know that if they come away with a scoop it will be by accident more than design. By convention other constitutional parties are invited to send along observers, not every member is aware of this which can give rise to some interesting moments. The members of the DUP were easily spotted, obviously concerned at the large turnout and confident mood. Pauline Armitage was also there though members were not quite sure if she was back in the fold or at the conference representing someone else. The local Conservatives were much in evidence with their prospective candidates engaging widely with Ulster Unionists from across the country.
Amongst the positives, beyond the attendance and positive atmosphere, was the large number of young talented unionists actively engaged in the background. It is they who will carry the party forward for the next 20 or 30 years and many of them should be seeking opportunities to represent unionism in the next Assembly and Council elections. In terms of public relations and policy we have pulled together the best teams in Northern Ireland politics though no doubt their collective blood pressure was elevated over the weekend.
While the conference delivered all that we could have expected there are a few areas where we can try and make things better.
The Ramada is a better venue in that it keeps the delegates closer to those organisations attending in order to inform or lobby them.
Given the rise in social media the introduction of a video booth to record delegate’s views of speeches and issues would create another outlet for grassroots views.
The need to keep to schedule foreshortened some of the debates and perhaps future conference organisers will consider whether conferences should be themed to provide the opportunity for more in depth debate.
When the biggest negative issue raised by the press was that Fred Cobain left early to see Crusaders (ignoring those who left early to see the blues and the Glens) then all in all, a good day’s work.