Sam McBride: The DUP is gearing up to address the UK, not just Northern Ireland
Gathered together in the Castlereagh Hills above east Belfast tomorrow will be the DUP in unprecedented grandeur.
The party will not be sitting in a gilded hall or adorned in lavish robes but it will be the focus of what follows those with power and deserts those who lose it: attention.
Supremely confident after the king-making position which June’s general election afforded it, Arlene Foster’s party will meet for what will be by far its biggest ever annual conference and what promises to be an uncomfortable watch for its rivals.
For an event which would normally attract about 40 media personnel from Belfast and Dublin, this year the party has accredited about 200 journalists, photographers and other media personnel – among them Robert Peston, Laura Kuenssberg and Faisal Islam, three of the biggest beasts of the Westminster lobby.
The event, always tightly controlled and ultra-professional, will take place at the traditional venue of the La Mon Hotel, the very name of which evokes memories of one of the Troubles’ most barbaric attacks when in 1978 the IRA maimed and burned alive members of the Irish Collie Club at the venue, using a device which replicated napalm.
This year, an entire floor of the hotel has been cleared for journalists, while downstairs the party members will throng in unprecedented numbers to celebrate their position and acclaim the 10 MPs who secured £1 billion for Northern Ireland.
Stall-holders – one of the most lucrative aspects of the conference for the party – are this year coming across the Irish Sea, an implicit recognition of the DUP’s power in the Commons and therefore the logic of lobbying the party’s MPs in their own backyard.
It might have taken half a century, but what was once the upstart Protestant Unionist Party of Ian Paisley has grown to entirely eclipse the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the party of Carson and Craig and the power which built Northern Ireland in an era when its dominance was such that frequently its members were elected unopposed.
Tomorrow’s conference will present the DUP as the inheritors of much, though not all, of the UUP’s defining characteristics. For unionists, it is now the natural party of government; it is the epitome of the new Northern Ireland establishment and it is now the party closest to the Conservatives to the point where it is more indispensable to the Tories than the UUP ever was even when the parties were formally linked.
One of the many small demonstrations of the DUP’s new-found seniority in the Palace of Westminster is found on the cover of The House magazine this week.
The in-house magazine of Westminster parliamentarians features on its front an image of a beaming DUP leader standing proudly in front of Lord Craigavon’s statue at the end of the Great Hall in Parliament Buildings.
The publication’s managing editor, Daniel Bond, had travelled to Stormont to do the interview – and it wasn’t the only major piece on the DUP in the edition; a second sit-down interview with the party’s Westminster leader, Nigel Dodds, and the views of other senior parliamentarians about his party are spread over several pages. Mr Bond says that it is the first time in the last five or six years during which he has been with the publication that it has featured a Northern Irish politician on its cover.
Strikingly, in her interview Mrs Foster admitted that Brexit – which the DUP championed – had made nationalists and unionists “stop to think”, adding that “it’s certainly given [Sinn Fein] something to campaign on”.
Mr Bond says that when the DUP-Tory agreement was signed “people here didn’t know a lot about them.
“There were some misconceptions about them, which comes across in the piece and that very clearly had riled Arlene Foster.”
He added: “Their conference is the first big set piece that Westminster journalists will take a look at because they didn’t do a lot of media other than a couple of Downing Street statements on the steps of Number 10 at the time of the deal.”
Mr Bond said that it was the DUP which had contacted his magazine seeking the interview, something which he took as “an indication that they’re looking to boost their profile here – they’re looking to directly target Westminster ... that was striking for me. They’ve got the 10 MPs but they haven’t just signed the deal and agreed to be silent partners; they want to flex their muscles”.
Although the DUP has two fewer MPs than the Lib Dems and is still numerically far behind the SNP’s group of 35 MPs, there is a sense that whereas 18 months ago it was Nicola Sturgeon’s 56 MPs that were the talk of Westminster, now it is the DUP which is intriguing both MPs and the Westminster media.
Mr Bond said that although Mrs Foster did not explicitly say that she wants to emulate the SNP, “she was talking about how the mainland press know a lot about the SNP, about what they stand for and that they’re more than a small Scottish parochial party”.
Senior DUP figures know that there are pitfalls for the party at Westminster if it doesn’t explain itself to the rest of the UK; already it has had a foretaste of that with widespread Commons support for a backbench Labour MP’s move to make it easier for women from Northern Ireland to get abortions in England, something which within hours the government accepted, despite DUP opposition.
Once Ian Paisley wore it as a badge of pride that he was reviled as an outsider in the Commons and denounced as a troublemaker by London journalists. While remnants of those attitudes remain in the party, that mindset long ago left the leadership and the party’s handful of key backroom figures.
When Mr Dodds gets up to speak at midday tomorrow and when Mrs Foster gets to her feet at 3pm, it may be the moment at which they are addressing London, Birmingham and Cardiff as much, if not more, than Larne, Ballyclare and Cookstown.