Tory conference showed the sort of politics NI badly needs

Prime Minister Theresa May delivers her keynote speech at the Conservative Party Conference at the Manchester Central Convention Complex in Manchester. The conference ranged from many fringe meetings to major speeches. Photo: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

“In East Belfast, Harland and Wolff famously built the White Star ocean liners of which RMS Titanic is still remembered as an amazing feat of engineering. Whist ill fated, we in Northern Ireland like to remind people it was perfectly fine when it left Belfast.”

To an audience who had not heard the well-known saying before, Sheila’s comment was greeted with laughter and claps.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson delivering his speech at the Conservative party conference at the Manchester Central Convention Complex in Manchester. Party members at the conference got to mingle with ministers and senior politicians. Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

This was in the main auditorium in Manchester Central at the Conservative Party conference, from the same podium that Theresa May yesterday addressed delegates and TV viewers across the nation.

Sheila Bodel, my colleague who has stood for East Belfast in two of the many recent elections we have had in Northern Ireland, was speaking on a session entitled “Delivering a modern industrial strategy”.

This is real politics of the kind Northern Ireland desperately requires.

In contrast, DUP’s Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill spent the next morning engaged in the usual stale and stale-mate discussion at the fringes of the conference.

DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein's Northern Ireland leader Michelle O'Neill with Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire and others including Nigel Dodds MP attend the Ulster fry breakfast at Manchester Town Hall during the Conservative Party Conference at the Manchester Central Convention Complex in Manchester on Tuesday. Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

Conservatives are electorally a small party in Northern Ireland but its members are determined to offer centre-right, fiscally responsible and socially progressive national politics to the electorate.

Every year a growing number of members travel across to the Conservative Party Conference in either Manchester or Birmingham to meet with friends and party colleagues.

It is hard to describe to anyone who has only seen news reports or attended a regional party conference in Northern Ireland what a Conference of the governing party of the United Kingdom offers.

There are thousands of fringe meetings to compete with the main speakers of the Cabinet in the main auditorium, and a range of special interest groups manning stalls in the exhibition area.

Annika Nestius-Brown, a longstanding member of the Conservative Party

The biggest surprise for those who have not previously attended is usually the many fascinating fringe events, the high quality of debate on issues of inequality, poverty and charity, and the diversity of attendees.

A highlight is the ability to see and sometimes speak to ministers, media commentators, campaigners of all political shades and to exchange ideas with party colleagues from across the country.

With the political uncertainty in Northern Ireland and the current parliamentary arrangement with the DUP, colleagues from across the UK visited the Northern Ireland Conservatives stall in the party area.

Many asked what the arrangements with the DUP mean for the party in Northern Ireland, but for those in doubt about the difference in outlook between the two parties, the prime minister was warm in her praise for her party colleagues at the Northern Ireland annual reception on Tuesday night.

Speaking to a packed room she thanked members for bringing national politics to all corners of the United Kingdom and stated her hopes in future success.

James Brokenshire, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, hosted the reception, which was well attended both by delegates from Northern Ireland and by the Northern Irish diaspora who fill every part of UK society.

A typical example is the wife of the chairman of the conference, who hails from Strabane, and who was shown on national news welcoming the prime minister to Manchester on Sunday night.

At the Northern Ireland reception, it also fell on the chairman of the conference to introduce the Prime Minster, who with over 2,500 meetings taking place over four days, including keynote addresses broadcast across the nation – as well as running the country – took time to attend and speak to members, prospective future candidates and well-wishers.

As the conference ends, delegates from Northern Ireland are now returning home with renewed determination to sign up new members and identify suitable candidates to, long-term, alter the political landscape at home and create a functioning, prosperous, vibrant society with politicians focused on the future, not the past.

• Annika Nestius-Brown is a long-standing member of the Conservative party and is active both in Associations and as a consultant on membership development

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