The DUP will gather as usual at La Mon Hotel today for its annual conference – but the party faces an unusual degree of introspection about its immediate future.
Peter Robinson’s confirmation on Thursday that he is retiring as DUP leader within weeks has left party members privately discussing who should be leader – but none of those members (unless they are MPs, MLAs or an MEP) will get a say in who the next leader will be.
In more than four decades since it was founded, the DUP has never had a leadership contest and it is possible that there will once more be only one agreed candidate for the top job.
Last night the outgoing leader conceded that those rules – which unlike almost every party in the British Isles gives no say to ordinary members on such a fundamental issue – needed to be changed.
Mr Robinson told BBC Radio Ulster’s Inside Politics programme: “Previously it had just been the Assembly members and we widened it out and I think there is a cause to widen it out yet again.
“The very least that I think that should be considered from here on is that we start looking at bringing in a representative at least from each of our council groups so that we have a wider spread and it’s more grass roots based.
“There will always be a need for the party to reform its own internal structures and arrangements and that’s something that we do regularly.”
Thus far, Mr Robinson has not agreed to do the customary pre-conference interview with the News Letter, as has happened every year right back to the leadership of Ian Paisley.
However, speaking to Irish state broadcaster RTE, Mr Robinson indicated that he does not want there to be continued speculation about his successor and that nominations to be the new leader may not even open until the New Year.
He told RTE: “There are a number of fairly immediate decisions that have to be taken and they [party officers] will then organise a transition.
“In the meantime, I don’t want people to be focusing on issues of succession yet. When the party officers declare the process - which I guess would be at the beginning of next year - then people can start looking at who the successors should be for leader and First Minister.
”Let’s focus on the agreement and getting it bedded in.”
In years gone past, DUP conferences were the setting for come of Mr Robinson’s fieriest rhetoric. The 66-year-old, who famously at the 1998 DUP conference, said that “the only cabinet the Provos should be in has brass handles on it” is likely to attempt much mellower rhetoric today.
It is an indicative of how far Mr Robinson has changed since then that this week he described the ex IRA man Martin McGuinness as a friend.
Since becoming leader, Mr Robinson has often used the occasion to set out a more moderate path for the party – something which has not met with universal approval within the party.
It is believed that Mr Robinson’s speech today will be shorter than it would normally be, partly due to the First Minister’s health situation following his heart attack this year.
Yesterday Paddy Power slightly shifted its odds in favour of Arlene Foster assuming the leadership, though Nigel Dodds remains the overwhelming favourite, with the bookie giving him an 81 per cent chance of assuming the leadership. The bookies’ odds on Mrs Foster give her a 28 per cent chance of getting the party’s top job.
Sammy Wilson and Gregory Campbell have both evaded giving clear answers as to whether they are interested in running for any of the top jobs. When asked yesterday by UTV if she could be the new First Minister, Arlene Foster similarly sidestepped the question.
“I don’t think this is the weekend to be talking about leadership or First Minister, this is a weekend where we are going to want to celebrate Peter’s leadership,” she said.