Peter Robinson in eve of conference warning to DUP on state of the Union

Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond (right) talks to   DUP leader Arlene Foster and deputy leader Nigel Dodds before addressing a party fund-raising dinner
Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond (right) talks to DUP leader Arlene Foster and deputy leader Nigel Dodds before addressing a party fund-raising dinner

The DUP gathers for its annual conference in Belfast on Saturday at the fulcrum of constitutional turmoil over Brexit but with a leader who is seeking to shore up her own weakened position.

The party demonstrated its clout on the national stage by having Chancellor Philip Hammond address its pre-conference dinner on Friday night.

Peter Robinson said he 'couldn't care less about the Irish language' and that an Irish language act was a 'small issue'

Peter Robinson said he 'couldn't care less about the Irish language' and that an Irish language act was a 'small issue'

Significantly, the pro-EU chancellor will address that event – which is closed to the media but is a significant fund-raising operation attended by business people and lobbyists who do not support the DUP – rather than addressing the party faithful on Saturday.

That task will be left to Boris Johnson, who will speak immediately before DUP leader Arlene Foster’s main address and is likely to use the opportunity to again denounce the prime minister’s Brexit deal and claim that it undermines the Union – a position shared by the DUP.

Mr Johnson’s presence will add to the message which the DUP is seeking to send from its conference – that it stands united against Theresa May’s Brexit deal.

The presence of the flamboyant former foreign secretary will also divert some attention from the DUP leader.

Weakened by the RHI scandal and the continued absence of Stormont, where she now has not been first minister for almost two years, Mrs Foster’s position is far from assured.

However, having made it to the party conference without any overt moves to depose her she is now likely to remain in post into the new year.

Although there have been significant internal grumblings about Mrs Foster, there will almost certainly be no dissent from the platform.

The party leadership controls who speaks at the conference – the DUP is an ultra-centralised party in which policy is decided by the party’s ruling executive – but in reality that is often a rubber-stamp for what is put to it by the leadership.

Nevertheless, comments which emerged on Friday from former leader Peter Robinson will have raised eyebrows among many DUP members.

According to a report by veteran journalists Eamonn Mallie and Brian Rowan, Mr Robinson told an event at Knock Methodist Church that the Irish language – the issue which derailed February’s draft deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein – was “such a small issue”, adding: “I couldn’t care less about the Irish language. Let them speak it until they are green, white and orange in the face, as long as it doesn’t encroach on me.”

And, in cautionary comments which could be seen as a message to his successor, Mr Robinson said: “If people want to maintain the Union it is necessary for us to have a stable government in Northern Ireland. You need to be careful not to allow the most vociferous voices in your party lead you.”

The former first minister also appeared to express regret about the party’s long policy of refusing to speak to Sinn Fein: “One of the greatest mistakes the DUP ever made was not talking directly to our adversaries,” with the contact being through the British and Irish governments which “had their own agendas”.

Robin Swann, leader of the DUP’s main rival, the UUP, said that Mrs Foster and her supporters need “to reflect on how they are dragging unionism down”.

He said: “A triumphalist display on Saturday will be completely misplaced because the DUP have nothing to be triumphalist about.

“Their time would be better spent reflecting on how far they have dragged unionism down. The tone of unionism has to change. We cannot let the Union slide through our fingers because some could not resist being snide or obnoxious to our neighbours.

“Unionism needs to be careful with its words. We need to win converts for the Union, not push people further away which is what the DUP seem determined to do.”