AFTER a 40-year career in which he was largely second fiddle to Ian Paisley in the second unionist party, Peter Robinson is suddenly king of all he surveys.
Every year since the scandal surrounding his wife almost three years ago threatened to topple him, Mr Robinson has strengthened his grip on the DUP.
On Saturday there was something approaching teen idol-worship when he entered the room to pounding rock music, making his way to the front where with arms aloft, he bade the faithful sit. It was an extraordinary modern, secular sight for a party which used to be seen as the political wing of the Free Presbyterian Church.
Though almost 64, there is not the slightest hint that Mr Robinson is thinking of retirement.
But Saturday’s speech, which contained little in the way of new policies or firm commitments, was laced with references to ‘history’ and ‘legacy’, giving the impression that Mr Robinson is already looking to how he will be remembered.
He urged the party not to be influenced by “the ups and downs of the 24-hour news cycle, only by the perspective of history”, and spoke of a day when “long after this generation of unionists has passed” future generations would say “when our time came we too gave of our best”.
Mr Robinson has already dramatically reshaped the DUP from its decades of Paisleyism to a modern, moderate party which is increasingly targeting pro-Union Catholics.
That has seen big changes – Mr Robinson attending his first Catholic Mass and GAA matches – but on Saturday, in barely-coded language, Mr Robinson made clear that further radical changes would come; though he didn’t spell out what they would be.
Emphasising that “challenging ourselves again and again” was crucial to maintain the confidence of voters, he warned that the DUP “cannot afford to push a narrow agenda”, something which for most of its history the party did.
Mr Robinson said that he was prepared to “abandon outdated dogmas” to expand unionism’s reach and told DUP members that “as other parties look inward, we must look outward and beyond our normal horizons”.
Those words are unlikely to thrill old-DUP types, such as those in the Caleb Foundation, but there were references throughout the day to the party’s support for churches, the Orange Order and opposition to abortion in an attempt to keep those people on board while secular, liberal unionists come to join them.
In a political landscape where there is no obvious external threat to the DUP’s dominance of Northern Ireland politics for years to come, Mr Robinson warned the party against being “smug or complacent”.
In a reference which many of the former Ulster Unionists in the room will have recognised instantly, he said: “Just recall how quickly other parties have fallen from power.”
Analysis by News Letter political correspondent Sam McBride