Nigel Dodds and Arlene Foster received specific praise from Peter Robinson in his final leader’s address to the DUP conference as speculation mounted among those at the conference that the pair will take over the DUP’s leadership positions.
As well as Mr Robinson’s words of warm praise in his televised address, there were prominent platform speeches from Mr Dodds, the current deputy leader, and Mrs Foster, the Finance Minister, both of which were warmly received by the delegates.
The expectation that Mr Dodds will become leader and Mrs Foster the First Minister has been widespread within the DUP over recent weeks – even before Mr Robinson announced on Thursday that he was standing down as leader.
The DUP veteran also used his speech to clarify that it will be for the new leader to appoint the First Minister.
He said: “The party officers have asked me to provide time for the foundations of the new Agreement to be put in place and to allow for a smooth leadership transition.
“We are all agreed that it is important this is done in a manner and in a timeframe that allows a new leader to settle in before the Assembly election.
“There will also be a need for the new leader to appoint a new First Minister.”
Speaking of Mr Dodds and Mrs Foster, Mr Robinson said: “There is not enough time to thank all of those who have played a part in our success but I could not go without paying particular tribute to the deputy leader of this party and the leader of our parliamentary group, Nigel Dodds.
“Nigel has been faithful, loyal and wise and always willing to share counsel. You don’t just see him when the cameras roll – he’s there to do his portion of the unappealing drudgery that also must be done.
“And my thanks to Arlene Foster our Finance Minister who has effectively deputised for me at Stormont.
“Arlene never refuses to help when asked and is always first to offer support. Hard work doesn’t frighten her and her abilities are recognised in every post she has held.
“I count myself fortunate to have had both Nigel and Arlene, not just as party colleagues, but as friends.”
Mr Robinson also singled out his two key special advisers – Timothy Johnston and Richard Bullick – who have been with him over the years since the Belfast Agreement as he has modernised the DUP.
Mr Robinson said that they had “put up with me longer than most and [their] judgment I always respected and valued. They all have been an indispensable part of this party’s success”.
Mr Robinson robustly defended – and made clear that his party will enthusiastically sell – the DUP-Sinn Fein agreement struck last week.
“The fundamental block on politics these last three years has been the refusal of some to face up to financial realities and accept welfare reform,” he said.
“That impasse soured relations; starved key public services of much-needed resources, and threatened the Executive with financial ruin.
“This deal ends that uncertainty and removes the obstacles to progress.”
Mr Robinson went on: “Mike Nesbitt has stated that his ambition is to hear Gerry Adams admit that the IRA still exists: my ambition is to hear the chief constable say that it doesn’t.
“That’s the difference. The UUP want to wallow in the problem. The DUP want to work to eradicate the problem.”
Alluding to the sometimes bizarre tactic of ‘in-out ministers’ in response to the UUP quitting the Executive and the PSNI arrest of senior Sinn Fein figure Bobby Storey (who was not charged), Mr Robinson conceded that there had been “unpopular tactical decisions along the way”.
But he insisted that the party would be vindicated for its stance. The East Belfast MLA tore into “the non-achievers, the wreckers and the do-nothing coalition”.
However, it was notable that this year Mr Robinson did not refer to Jim Allister, but concentrated several attacks on a UUP which has been gaining ground over the last year.
Mr Robinson said that when he had first joined the party more than four decades ago, the DUP was “but an irritant to the political establishment; now we are the largest party of government in Northern Ireland”.
Mr Robinson made no mention of the DUP’s founder, Ian Paisley, during his speech.
But he pledged that he – unlike the late Dr Paisley – would not publicly criticise his successor as leader.
And, as Mr Robinson’s final speech drew to a close, the DUP leader – who has sought to move the party away from its close association with the Free Presbyterian Church and to broaden its appeal – turned to religious rhetoric which would not have been out of place in a Paisley speech.
As he closed his speech before a long ovation from the crowd, Mr Robinson said: “My race is nearly run; advancing years and failing health bring with them a sense of mortality and counsel me that in time – though I hope not too soon – I must pass beyond the reach of earthly powers.
“I thank God that He planted me in this corner of his creation. I thank God that he allowed me to live a life of purpose and service to the people I love.
“I thank God He placed in my heart a love for my country, its traditions and way of life – and a passion to defend them.
“I thank God He bound me, in this cause and in this party, to like souls who felt that same conviction and devotion ... I bid each of you a fond and affectionate farewell. May God bless you all.”