Stormont is worth working to restore, Arlene Foster has told her party conference, insisting that it is wrong to say that past executives led by the DUP and Sinn Féin had delivered nothing.
In a largely cautious speech to the DUP’s annual conference on Saturday, the party leader set out little new in terms of policy or revelations about how the party will approach its seemingly interminable negotiations with Gerry Adams’ party about returning to powersharing with each other.
However, in what was a forcefully delivered speech, the former first minister rounded on Sinn Féin multiple times, suggesting that a “heavy brigade” in the party was blocking the restoration of devolved government in Belfast.
Speaking against a backdrop of mounting unionist calls for direct rule in the short term due to the absence of devolution, Mrs Foster stressed the importance of returning the assembly and the executive.
In a room ringed with security guards out of concern for Mrs Foster’s safety, either from dissident republican terrorists or from a lone protester, she told hundreds of delegates packed into the conference hall: “It’s popular to bash Stormont and to criticise devolution - you may have noticed that; to say it has delivered nothing.
“But the truth is that during devolved government – while far from perfect – there were record levels of inward investment, scores of new schools built, miles of new roads constructed and hundreds of millions more spent on health.
“While we have more influence than ever before at Westminster we also want to see our local institutions functioning and delivering for the people of Northern Ireland.
“Making our mission a reality is best achieved by getting the assembly and the executive back doing what the people elected us to do.
“That is why we should have re-established the executive eight months ago without any pre-conditions. We would have got the government going again while dealing with issues of language and culture in parallel, but such a pragmatic approach was rejected by the ‘heavy’ brigade in Sinn Féin.”
Mrs Foster reiterated that offer, made in August, to restore Stormont and then legislate for the Irish language within a set period.
Although there was wild applause for Mrs Foster when she took the stage, and vocal assent from delegates at various points throughout her speech, there was no applause for that point.
The leader of unionism in Northern Ireland acknowledged that unionists “haven’t always spent sufficient time spelling out that positive vision” of the Union’s benefits.
The former first minister said: “We are the party for Northern Ireland but our unionism doesn’t end at the Irish Sea. We will always fight hard for the best deal for Northern Ireland but we care about vulnerable people in Bristol and Birmingham every bit as much as those in Belfast.”
Referring to the DUP’s role in supporting Theresa May, Mrs Foster said she and her party were “seized with an abiding sense of duty to the national interest”.
Mrs Foster paid warm tribute to her deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, who earlier had enthusiastically backed Mrs Foster’s leadership, telling the party: “Arlene isn’t going away”.
Mrs Foster described him as “a steadfast and loyal” deputy leader whose “service to this party and to our country cannot be overstated”.
One of the most loudly cheered sections of Mrs Foster’s speech was when she ruled out ever accepting some sort of special EU status for Northern Ireland, distinct from the rest of the UK.
She said: “We welcome the assurances from the prime minister and the UK Brexit team that no such internal barriers [a border in the Irish Sea, rather than at the Irish border] will be countenanced and that as we joined the then European Community as one nation we will leave as one United Kingdom.”
Large tracts of Mrs Foster’s speech dwelt – often in broad brush way, rather than in setting out specific policies – on everyday, rather than constitutional, politics. She said that the DUP was on the side of pensioners, farmers, the armed forces, first time house buyers, young families and small business owners.
Mrs Foster did not mention at all the issue which in many ways has dogged her for the last 12 months – the RHI scandal.
The rules of the public inquiry into the ‘cash for ash’ scheme mean that she is limited in what she can say about evidence which has already been heard at the inquiry although on Friday Mrs Foster told the BBC that she was looking forward to giving evidence to the inquiry.
In one of a series of sharp criticisms of Sinn Féin which Mrs Foster delivered with particular force, she alluded to a comment by her Sinn Féin counterpart Michelle O’Neill, saying: “Regardless of some of the propaganda the truth is the Union is secure and no matter how many times we are told that ‘the North isn’t British’, Northern Ireland is British and British it will remain.”
She also said, with great feeling: “It is time that Sinn Féin started to respect our British culture.
“For too long they have shown nothing but disdain and disrespect for the national flag, the Royal Family, the armed forces, British symbols, the constitutional reality and the very name of this country.”
She went on to say that her party would “conclude a balanced deal” with Sinn Féin “but we will not be party to a one-sided arrangement that rewards intransigent behaviour”.