#DUP19: Conference Roundup

28 October 2019 - by Gráinne Walsh

If a week is a long time in politics, a year feels like a lifetime. Yet amid much change at #DUP19, a lot has stayed the same.

When DUP members gathered at Belfast’s Crowne Plaza eleven months ago, relations with the Conservative Party were deeply strained. A week earlier, then Prime Minister Theresa May signed off on a Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union—which the party deeply opposed—and Boris Johnson headlined the Saturday afternoon conference slot to a rapturous reception.

This time around the party met again at the end of a week where they twice voted to defeat the Government on Brexit, with Prime Minister Johnson consigned to the “naughty step in Parliament” by leader Arlene Foster over his apparent duplicity in relation to Withdrawal Agreement 2.0.

Whilst this was as personal as it got, there was a distinct and palpable anger amongst party members at the man who has gone back on his promise of never putting a border in the Irish Sea.

In a defiant message to Downing St, Deputy Leader Nigel Dodds reminded delegates that party remains “undaunted” by the political gridlock in Westminster amid an “inability of some Cabinet ministers to remember what actually has been agreed with the EU.”

While Brexit may have topped the agenda, discussions elsewhere reflected ongoing policy development in areas from health to the environment, and from childcare to productivity and mental health.

Against speculation of reduced numbers and the lack of a government minister either at the Friday night dinner (Chancellor Philip “spread sheet Phil” Hammond was excellent last year) or on the Saturday, Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson kicked off proceedings.

Donaldson outlined in some detail how Confidence and Supply funding is delivering change and supporting projects across Northern Ireland from Rural Transport schemes worth £701,000, to support for 473 schools and broadband investment.

Continuing this theme, fellow MP Gavin Robinson led an economic panel which discussed the changing face of work and business and the opportunity to shape this change. Citing the Belfast City Deal and reflecting on recent developments at Harland & Wolff and Wrightbus, Robinson said he was confident “a pathway for a better future has been found.”

On health, a panel of MPs and MLAs repeated the need for transformation, workforce planning, rural proofing of services and continuing rollout of Multi-Disciplinary Teams in GP practices. Against increasing budgetary pressures, panellists highlighted the critical role of community and voluntary organisations in plugging funding gaps and driving change.

The Improving Childcare workshop, chaired by former Education Minister Peter Weir and Health Spokesperson Paula Bradley, took soundings from a range of organisations including Employers for Childcare, Barnardo’s, Parenting NI, JRF and the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions on what a future Childcare Strategy might look like.

In her Leader’s Speech, Arlene Foster reflected on a year of electoral success in local and European elections while launching her vision of ‘Next Generation Unionism’, hinting at the notion of a compromise on Irish Language within a broader suite of cultural legislation.

The coming days will pose further challenge to the DUP as Brexit draws ever near, and it remains to be seen how they will respond – and critically, whether their MPs remain relevant in the parliamentary arithmetic at play in the week ahead.

The message delivered to Conference 2019 by party leadership is that they will not be the collateral damage in the untangling of intrinsically linked relations between the UK and EU.

And whilst the message was that the DUP is election-ready, an election could in fact be the undoing of any remaining influence on the UK Government they have, which they will be all too aware of as they head back to the House of Commons this week for the next part of this saga.