It is a notion that still takes a bit of getting used to – a champagne reception hosted by the DUP.
The party has changed markedly since the days when it was founded by the tee-total Rev Ian Paisley, so an event that by its description nominally revolves around alcohol is part of the DUP’s evolution.
The reception that was held on the fringes of the Conservative Party conference yesterday is not merely unusual for its link to alcohol, but for the drink that was served – champagne.
Glasses of wine, for example, were available to guests at the farewell dinner for Ian Paisley at the King’s Hall, Balmoral in May 2008, but that drink of course was not at the heart of the occasion then. Champagne, however, is associated with events that are typically more cosmopolitan and fun-loving than a traditional, conservative unionist party.
Arlene Foster, the party leader, has said that the event in Birmingham was not intended to be billed as a champagne reception. But even if it had been, the DUP was right to put on such an occasion in an art gallery. If any guests or hosts wanted to eschew drinks, they would have been free to do so, and given the lunchtime scheduling many probably did.
Mrs Foster says it was “good PR,” and unionism has long been in need of such, failing over the decades to promote the friendly face to the world that nationalism has done. The ability of even Sinn Fein members who have past links to IRA terror to charm international dignatories, contrasting with the often prickliness of unionists, is a reason why politicians from abroad who know little about Northern Ireland have at times seemed quick to swallow the narrative that surly Protestants are to blame for the conflict.
The DUP has major influence now at Westminster, given the tight arithmetic and bitter divisions over Brexit. There is cross-party goodwill towards pro-Union groups that are based on the edge of the UK. Earlier this year the UUP sought to trade on that goodwill by hosting a bustling reception on the House of Commons terrace. These events pay dividends for unionism and for Northern Ireland.