The DUP conference on Saturday was filled to capacity with around 500 delegates. The agenda captured a wide spread of activities:
- the economy
- rural communities
- local government
- social media
- public services
- churches and communities.
Early in the schedule, a mea culpa from the Deputy Leader. Nigel Dodds’s speech was brimming with confidence but not so bombastic as to fail to concede that the DUP can get it wrong. To those voters who stayed at home / voted TUV at the Euro election, Dodds said:
To those pro-Union voters, I say simply this, message received and understood. The DUP learns its political lessons.
However, there was no analysis as to why these voters left the party. But this may not have been the time or the place for an election post mortem. Any extensive retrospective here would have seriously interrupted continuity of the speech’s key themes: leadership; and getting it right.
Nigel Dodds’s was a speech of two halves First half, reasons to back the DUP. Second, reasons to avoid the others.
The first half focused on renewing unionism, which Dodds described as a generational task. Though he didn’t specifically detail the task for those in the younger generation (perhaps that’s an agenda for Young Democrats to set), he did list the tasks facing his own:
- taking political fight to Sinn Fein, to republicans and to nationalists
- the reform of Stormont (removing mandatory coalition and installing a devolved system that will provide small, just, effective and efficient government).
- reform at Westminster (opposing ‘the Conservative idea of downgrading Scottish and Ulster MPs to second class status’; reforming the House of Lords; the debate on a Bill of Rights).
- see Northern Ireland flourish and prosper (expanding private sector; reducing poverty; increasing employment; and tackling sectarianism / racism.
To the second half of the speech (reasons to avoid the others). First up, UCUNF.
Dodds views the UCUNF pact as the difference between sentients and drones. He emphasised the DUP’s singular independence (enacting wishes of local grassroots) and counterpointed this with the UUP’s dependency (enacting diktats of Tory MPs).
The DUP, free from the shackles of subservience to another party’s whip, will fight for the good of Northern Ireland at ALL times and in ALL circumstances.
The DUP, free from the fetters of another party’s policies, will speak and vote at Westminster and at Stormont guided by what is good for Northern Ireland and good for the United Kingdom and British interests.
The DUP, free from ties to labour or Conservatives, will advance the cause of unionism and thwart the republican agenda.
This is the agenda that will shape the future. This is the approach that will take Northern Ireland towards its centenary in 2021. This is where the DUP wants to take the pro-Union community.
The price of the UUP’s deal (and the cost of no electoral pact in FST & SB) would be ‘more Unionist division and less Unionists in our national Parliament’.
But again Dodds concentrated on attacking the Tories, and I’m not sure about this.
The Conservatives will form the next government. What collateral damage does this line cause his party in its dealings at Westminster? If this line does persuade a handful of voters to remain at home, what is the opportunity cost in terms of influence, goodwill and brokering position in the corridors of power?
So will this line deprive sufficient votes from UCUNF to make the exercise worthwhile? I would say no, but we cannot tell. And because there is no certainty I personally would bank goodwill at Westminster and avoid increased risk for an unknown result.
In addition, Dodds focused on cuts and referred to DUP investment. This line was abandoned by Labour some months ago as it was not deemed credible by the public. Again, I wonder if a ‘cuts versus investment’ line is so powerful as to compensate for exposing certain weak points for others to exploit.
A DUP Finance Minister must rationalise government and find efficiencies (make cuts) in order to close the £370m hole in public purse. Wilson must impose cuts and the public must be comfortable that this is the right thing to do. If the Tory policy of finding efficiencies is slammed by the DUP, how do they create the warm environment for their Ministers to do the same thing?
In order to avoid accusations of hypocrisy on spending cuts, I wonder if this line should not be quietly dropped.
Dodds then moved on to the TUV. He dismissed Jim Allastair’s party as providing a sideshow (entertaining but ineffective).
The fact is – destruction will gain nothing. Progress will be delivered through out-working, out-thinking and out-dealing our opponents today, tomorrow and in the years ahead. To risk all in one grand confrontation with no guarantee of success is sheer folly.
Dodds then produced a copy of ‘Alienated and Unbowed’ – a pamphlet arguing ‘that the best Unionist strategy is for power to be devolved to Northern Ireland’… written by, er, Jim Allistair. (I would like to get my hands on a copy of that.)
He is Joint Authority Jim. Now, in the world of Joint Authority Jim, it is better to have joint Dublin-London rule with Sinn Fein pulling the strings and unionists out in the cold, without power or influence.
This record is why the DUP can be trusted to lead Unionism into the future. The UUP would agree to anything. The TUV would agree to nothing. The DUP will agree to the right thing, at the right time for the right reasons.
With the exception of a areas noted above, this was a strong speech brimming with confidence, certainty and conviction.
PS. More material to follow on the DUP conference in coming days.