Sam McBride: Foster may have averted the next flag protest before it even began

First Minister Arlene Foster speaking to the News Letter in Stormont Castle. 
Picture: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

First Minister Arlene Foster speaking to the News Letter in Stormont Castle. Picture: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Although Handel’s is not the sort of music which finds favour with those who run modern political party conferences, the most appropriate music to match the DUP mood as Arlene Foster made her grand entrance on Saturday would have been ‘See The Conquering Hero Comes’.

It would of course have been much too ostentatious, but it would have been more honest about the emotion of the hall than the chosen music, the funkier hit ‘We Are Family’.

Almost a year into the top job in Northern Ireland politics, Mrs Foster is still riding high on a wave of good will both inside and outside the DUP. At some point, the extended honeymoon will end, but on Saturday there were no hints as to when that will be.

The DUP love for Mrs Foster is a mixture of relief that they finally have a popular leader after the Robinson years, an appreciation of her more personable style and – crucially – a respect for the election-winning quality she showed in May.

The feeling is not entirely universal – one elderly lady bluntly told the BBC’s Gareth Gordon “she’s no Ian Paisley” – but it is widespread across most sections of the party.

Mrs Foster’s speech on Saturday was steady and well received, if unspectacular.

But the first minister made one of her most significant early moves ahead of the conference. In an interview with the News Letter, Mrs Foster said that passport control between Northern Ireland and Great Britain was a “red line” for the DUP and that she had been assured by the Government (keen to get DUP support in a tight Commons) that it will not happen.

If Mrs Foster has secured what she says she has secured, then she may have averted the next flags protest before it even came on to most people’s radar.

There has been little discussion about the possibility of Northern Irish citizens not being able to freely travel elsewhere within the United Kingdom – despite lengthy discussion of the implications for the Irish border.

Yet, if such an outcome was to flow from Brexit, the consequences could have been disastrous, given the emotional significance of Northern Ireland suddenly being cut off from the rest of the Union, while there was no such border control at the Irish border.

On Saturday, there was limited discussion of that – or much other detailed policy – and the party largely seems trusting of the leadership to work through such detail. But that trust would quickly come under pressure if a major policy decision is bungled.

As the Ulster Unionistification of the DUP accelerates, there was no room on Saturday for speeches by the old rabble-rousers Sammy Wilson or Gregory Campbell.

Mr Wilson, traditionally the most popular speaker with grassroots members, has been absent from the platform for several years, while Mr Campbell – who just two years ago was producing a pot of yoghurt as part of a routine mocking Sinn Fein’s use of the Irish language – got just a brief platform appearance to announce Arlene Foster’s arrival.

Removing those most likely to poke fun at Sinn Fein from the platform is in some ways simply a recognition of the new battle lines at Stormont. The DUP is now virtually alone in government with Sinn Fein, with the Opposition parties their joint targets.

Saturday was a demonstration of the DUP in political maturity – a very different beast from the tub-thumping rhetoric of Ian Paisley.

So far removed from that era is the party these days that Education Minister Peter Weir was brutally disparaging about the very position of Opposition, portraying the DUP as “a party of responsibility and achievement”.

Opposition, he said, “brings with it the luxury of unaffordable populism and constant complaining without offering any constructive solutions, but what it doesn’t do is achieve a single thing for anyone in Northern Ireland”. It was almost as if the DUP had always been the party of government, rather than the persistent outsider for all of its history until little more than a decade ago.

That line was just one of several audacious moves which all seemed to come off.

The party managed to balance no criticism of Sinn Fein during the leader’s speech with Willie McCrea’s firebrand routine, in which he told republicans they can “go over the border and they can get their tricolour” with – on the surface at least – members cheering both approaches.

The DUP is now so far ahead of its rivals – and so much more united than it was 12 months ago – that the party’s biggest danger is probably conceit.