Irish backstop –
That was perfectly clear from chatting to people attending the DUP’s annual conference in the Crowne Plaza Hotel in south Belfast on Saturday.
Foster nor her senior lieutenants such as Nigel Dodds made any specific reference to how the party will vote on Monday when the British prime minister seeks a mandate to go to the country in the bleak mid winter.
Foster, of course, as she had to, said the DUP was ready for an election. But it didn’t look that way. There were about 350 delegates at the conference, which is low for what is supposed to be the DUP’s biggest yearly jamboree. This was a party not in a good place.
There is a sense of the DUP being between the devil and the deep-blue sea
Not so long back in the day DUP conferences attracted gatherings of up to 600. This was a flat affair. This was not a party chomping at the bit to be out knocking on doors in the lead up to Christmas, especially, as is perfectly possible, if that election should happen a couple of weeks after the cash for ash report is published – a report that could be crushingly damaging for both Foster and the DUP.
“Make no mistake this will be the most unpredictable election outcome in the United Kingdom for a generation,” said Foster.
“You’re darn right there, Arlene,” delegates would have inwardly agreed, but in a tremulous whistling-past-the graveyard kind of way.
Last year tousle-haired Boris Johnson was the star of the DUP conference but the fair-haired boy wouldn’t have been popular on Saturday, considering as the DUP sees it, he betrayed them by signing up to a border on the Irish Sea.
Instead, according to Dodds, the Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay offered to come to the conference to explain how this deal was no threat to the DUP or the union.
The DUP didn’t want to see him either. “Given his recent inability to recall what he’s actually negotiated we politely declined,” said Dodds, in a nice wry delivery that earned some chuckles. (We later learned that actually, no, Barclay had not made an offer to speak, but let’s not spoil a joke.)
The point was made by a number of DUP people, and it was a reasonable one, that as a raft of legislation is put through Westminster to achieve Brexit that the Conservatives would love to have the support of the DUP’s ten MPs.
It seemed that Foster went further than at any time in the past, publicly at least, in indicating she could be up for a deal that might bring back Stormont
If there is an election called on Monday by December 13th the DUP may have fewer than 10 MPs. But regardless, and even if the DUP drops one or two seats, eight or nine MPs on Boris’s side would be very welcome on difficult days in parliament. Of course too if Boris get a decent majority then he wouldn’t need the DUP to see the Brexit deal through.
There is a sense of the DUP being between the devil and the deep-blue sea. It can’t tolerate Jeremy Corbyn whom they see as a threat to the union so they may be stuck with Boris, whom currently they also see as a threat to the union.
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And if they can’t stand Johnson’s deal what do they go for? A no-deal Brexit, which would further infuriate business people and farmers, many of them in normal circumstances DUP voters? Or a second Brexit referendum with this time Foster doing a reverse somersault and supporting Remain? Not a good place at all.
Conferences generally aren’t places for self-reflection but South Belfast MP Emma Little-Pengelly did engage in some navel gazing. She said the party was losing “too many of our young people from traditionally unionist families” and that too often “we play into our enemies’ hands”.
The implicit acknowledgment in her line, “I know that we are not a party of hate, or bigotry, or backwardness”, was that there is such a perception of the DUP, and it is one, according to Little-Pengelly, that the party must address.
Her solution was for the party to be “inclusive, welcoming, forward-looking . . . strong and reasonable . . . passionate with attractive, sensible ideas” – again, the apparent implication that it may be lacking such qualities.
Another strong line from Little-Pengelly was that Jeremy Corbyn “is the greatest existential threat to the union”.
If that is the case it seems the DUP can only be left with Boris. Bad place indeed.
But to take another line from Little-Pengelly it was not all “doom and gloom”. On a similar theme to the South Belfast MP Foster dedicated a decent chunk of her speech to saying that “unionism should be inclusive, welcoming and embracing to all – it should permit individuals to express the cultural life they choose”.
Getting agreement on an Irish language act is still viewed as pivotal in creating the conditions to restore powersharing at Stormont. Foster said that “Northern Ireland is big enough to accommodate everyone’s culture. Indeed as unionists, it is in our long-term strategic interests to ensure that everyone, regardless of their culture, feels at home in Northern Ireland.”
Foster added that it was not incompatible to be an Irish language speaker and a unionist – “indeed there might even be one or two here today,” she added.
It was funny here how cruel camera-people focused on Gregory “curry my yogurt” Campbell at this portion of her speech – the East Derry MP taking teasing nudges from his colleagues at least had the grace to laugh.
But it seemed that Foster went further than at any time in the past, publicly at least, in indicating she could be up for a deal that might bring back Stormont.
“So, my offer stands,” she said. “If we can find a way to craft language and culture laws that facilitates those who speak the language, but does not inappropriately infringe on or threaten others, the DUP will not be found wanting.”
That was the sort of language that with an added dose of political generosity – as Foster also called for – could bring us to a better place.
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