I suppose it had to happen at some point.
After 40 years I finally attended my first DUP conference. I had been invited to take part in a panel discussion on ‘Strengthening Unionism’ on Saturday afternoon, so I decided to make a day of it. And, to be honest, I went with a sense of trepidation. This was a party I have been pretty rough on over the years and whose leadership I have pummelled in my column: accusing them of hypocrisy, cowardice, weakness and ‘serial spinelessness’ in dealing with Sinn Fein. So it wouldn’t have been much of a surprise if I had been cold-shouldered by many of those at the La Mon. This is, after all, a party that doesn’t take prisoners when it comes to perceived ‘opponents’.
Yet two things struck me when I arrived. The first was the sheer sense of buzz about the place: and the other was the air of friendliness. Indeed, I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised by the number of people who just came up to shake hands and say hello – albeit that quite a few of them were former members of the UUP!
I was also struck by the fact that this was a party which had come to terms with what it has done since 2003. No-one I spoke to admitted to being keen on having to share power with Sinn Fein, but all of them emphasised that it was the right thing to do. When pushed about why they couldn’t have signed up much earlier they said that David Trimble had yielded too much, too quickly and had nothing to show for his efforts. And I make that point only because I think that neither the UUP nor SDLP has yet come to terms with what they did: hence their ongoing lack of confidence and sense of direction.
The downside of the conference – as it is of so many – was the speeches. And the main theme of them was an attack on the media for being so negative, followed by a roll-call of what had been achieved by the Executive. Yet with the resources available to the Executive maybe the speakers could have asked why their own experts had made such a bad choice of getting the message over.
Robinson’s own was too long and lacking in real punch. Yes, he was very good at selling the reality of having to co-govern with Sinn Fein; but he was much weaker when it came to the nitty-gritty of what the Executive had done or would do to create a new era, post-conflict Northern Ireland. None of those criticisms mattered to the 700 or so people listening. They rewarded him with an enthusiastic ovation.
And success matters to the DUP. Power matters to them, too. After so long as the truculent sideshow of local politics they revel in the pleasure of having eclipsed the UUP. Success, power and election victories will always result in buzzing conferences, happy audiences and untroubled leaders. I regret having not popped in to see them back in the late 1970s or early 1990s; if only to have something by which to measure Saturday. Never mind: the DUP is clearly happy, confident, hungry and quite clear about what it needs to do to stay on top. Mind you, that’s exactly where the UUP was in the summer of 1997!