I was at both four-day events, and both times I reported on the fact that there was a lot of talk during the conference in support of the Union and of Northern Ireland.
But both this year and then the fine talk was not reflected in Boris Johnson’s keynote speech on the Wednesday, which wrapped up the gathering.
What happened in October 2019 was particularly noteworthy.
The DUP were almost the star turn at the then conference, which is hardly surprising given that they were at the time still propping up the Conservatives in power in Westminster.
Leading members of Northern Ireland’s then biggest political party were speaking at various prestigious fringe Tory events at the 2019 conference in Manchester.
I remember walking past a tent which was holding a popular drinks reception, and peering in at the dignitaries to see Jacob Rees Mogg talking warmly to Arlene Foster.
On the penultimate night Boris Johnson was the main attraction at a DUP event, for which long queues of Conservative members gathered to gain entry.
I interviewed many of those Tories, who said things such as there was nothing more important than the Union.
Then on October 2 2021, in his big address to conference delegates, under signs of Get Brexit Done, I was struck by the way that the prime minister made no major reference to Northern Ireland, and did not repeat any of his fighting talk the night before at the DUP event. Then, to cheers, he had emphasised his unionism.
Later that day Mr Johnson’s initial offer to the EU of a regulatory — but not customs — border in the Irish Sea was issued.
This was a huge climbdown from his specific pledge to the DUP — which indeed he flew to Belfast to make — that both a tariff and a regulatory internal UK barrier were unacceptable.
The DUP supported that dramatic new plan of 2019, but it has been careful to point out the various reasons why it did so, including what it says was a proposed Stormont lock (see link below to a recent letter by Lord Dodds on this point).
It is also only fair to note the extreme pressure the DUP had been under to give ground since late 2017, when Theresa May in her backstop conceded in principle the Irish nationalist demand that there be no change whatsoever at the Irish land border, not so much as CCTV.
As the months passed, and the political stalemate over Brexit got ever more entrenched, I remember an article in 2019 by the influential columnist with The Times, Danny Finkelstein, entitled: ‘The DUP’s answer is always the same: no’.
The party was being blamed for delaying a reasonable Brexit deal, when in fact it was rightly holding out on matters of core constitutional principle.
Even so, the DUP endorsement, while it was made in extremis, of Mr Johnson’s initial regulatory border plan just after the 2019 conference (also held in Manchester) was ruthlessly used as a stepping stone by him to the full border contained in the Northern Ireland Protocol — both regulatory and, in effect, customs too, and with reduced, retrospective say for Stormont.
Defenders of the prime minister, with considerable justification, say that the original sin was the weakness of Mrs May in 2017.
They also point out the hopeless arithmetic of Parliament in late 2019, and the way in which MPs effectively tried to force the government into a Brexit on the EU’s terms — a scenario which could only be avoided by a major concession on Northern Ireland.
This, while true, is not the full story.
It does not explain three things.
One, why the PM turned on Nigel Dodds in a despicable way when he challenged the capitulation to Leo Varadkar days after it happened. Mr Johnson turned to MPs, to get them to side with him against the then DUP deputy leader, and said that he hoped no party in NI would want a veto.
Never once has Mr Johnson or any leading government minister so much as hinted at the veto Sinn Fein wields over Stormont if it does not get key demands — notably after it collapsed devolution in 2017.
Two, why Mr Johnson was back slapping with European leaders days after agreeing the protocol with Mr Varadkar.
If he really was a unionist, and had had simply no option but to jettison part of his nation to secure an international deal, then why was he not sombre and deflated?
It is remarkable to see how some unionists still chum around with Mr Johnson.
Mrs May, for all her weakness, was evidently deeply concerned about losing Northern Ireland, and the agonising choices she faced were etched on her face for years.
Three, if the EU is now going to agree things such as removal of medicines from the protocol, why then did Mr Johnson’s negotiators not secure this in 2019?
I talked to a Tory MP this week, who is more unionist than most English politicians, and he told me candidly that the protocol had happened so quickly its impact had not been widely understood.
Whatever the exact understandings and motives of the government in late 2019, it has long since come to see the great damage that the Irish Sea border is doing to Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. That part of its current tough rhetoric is for real.
As is the EU retreat in tone. No-one is now talking about rigorous implementation of the protocol. There has been no end of eye rolling at the past mistakes by Brexiteers, but very little about how misguided were such calls for the full force of the Irish Sea border.
This week in Manchester I interviewed Lord Frost, who is leading the UK charge to reform the protocol, and have little doubt that he is serious about wanting reform to it or even that he is prepared to see Article 16 triggered to suspend the trade barrier (see link to a video of him saying so, and also a video of the former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith saying similar).
The decision, however, will rest with the prime minister.
If he takes radical action over the NI Protocol, he will face a trade war with the EU.
Does his unionism go that far?
Perhaps the failure to mention the Irish Sea border was innocent enough.
Perhaps it reflected an understanding that his audience is not that interested in NI.
I just hope it doesn’t signal that a deal on largely EU terms is coming.
• Ben Lowry (@Benlowry2) is News Letter acting editor
Other articles by Ben Lowry below, and beneath that information on how to subscribe to the News Letter:
• Ben Lowry Oct 2: Unionism could make great headway lobbying in the United States
• Ben Lowry Oct 2: A belated happy 284th birthday to ourselves at the News Letter!
• Ben Lowry September 25: Colum Eastwood is right to say that vaccine passports allow us to open up
• Ben Lowry Sep 25: A sunny autumn day in Co Down banishes some of my equinox gloom
• Ben Lowry Sep 4: Drivers are now well paid ... which reminds me of a job idea
• Ben Lowry Aug 28: Lagan Valley shows the challenges facing both unionism and Alliance
• Ben Lowry Aug 21: Unionists are more vulnerable to the fall of Stormont than republicans
• Ben Lowry Aug 21: Bigwigs should realise that there is no holiday before retirement
• Ben Lowry Aug 14: The collapse of Kabul to the Taliban will be seen as a sign of western weakness
• Ben Lowry Aug 7: Covid has been a bewildering and humbling pandemic
• Ben Lowry Aug 7: Now I understand those older people who want cooler summer weather
• Ben Lowry Aug 2: Three points to keep in mind when arguing against the NI Protocol
• Ben Lowry July 31: The last NI housing boom was disaster, and we need to beware a repeat
• Ben Lowry July 24: Hot weather ought to be welcome in NI but this is extreme
• Ben Lowry July 17: UK has tipped into an amnesty after a long approach to IRA that lacked bite
• Ben Lowry July 15: We should be honest as to how we have arrived at a Troubles amnesty
• Ben Lowry July 10: We will find soon if UK is for once going to criticise Ireland
• Ben Lowry July 10: I once always wanted England to lose, now I want them to win
• Ben Lowry July 3: The mild DUP response to the protocol will cause Boris little concern
• Ben Lowry June 26: Neither Dublin nor IRA have been put under any pressure on legacy
• Ben Lowry June 26: A slight sense of sadness as the days again begin to shorten
• Ben Lowry June 19: Somehow the appeasement of Sinn Fein got worse
• Ben Lowry May 22: Instead of ‘moving on’ from IRA funeral, we still need proper answers
• Ben Lowry May 22: If Joel Keys, 19, wants to help unionism he should get a law degree
• Ben Lowry May 15: Edwin Poots and Doug Beattie will offer two distinct shades of unionism
• Ben Lowry May 8: Formal UK ideas for an amnesty are almost exactly 20 years old
• Ben Lowry May 8: Let us hope that the brilliant Eoghan Harris keeps on writing
• Ben Lowry May 1: Unionism can’t just be about managing long-term defeat
• Ben Lowry April 17: DUP still has to choose between managing this disaster or total rejection of it
• Ben Lowry April 10: His enduring marriage to the Queen was key to our understanding of Prince Philip
• Ben Lowry Mar 20: We have made it through the worst of the dark, dreaded winter lockdown
• Ben Lowry Mar 20: MLAs lost control of abortion by rejecting modest law reform
• Ben Lowry Mar 13: Scotland tunnel isn’t fantasy, but something kids of today might see
• Ben Lowry Mar 6: The cost of victims’ pension has ballooned without explanation as to why
• Ben Lowry Feb 20: We still lack answers as to why IRA funeral got special treatment at Roselawn
• Ben Lowry Feb 13: Peter Robinson has long experience of what is and is not politically feasible
• Ben Lowry Jan 30: At last, clear reason for UK and unionists to stop being weak towards Ireland/EU
• Ben Lowry Jan 16: The Irish Sea border was imposed because UK knew unionists would take it
• Ben Lowry in 2020: Last night unionists celebrated a move towards Irish unity
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