John Manley: Tory deal ensured the DUP was on its best conference behaviour
OUT came the best china and everybody was under strict orders to behave themselves, lest our new posh friends from ‘the mainland’ get a bad impression.
The DUP’s role as Westminster kingmakers gave its 2017 conference a rather different feel.
It would be stretching things to describe it as cosmopolitan but there was clearly a concerted effort to ensure that anybody watching in Britain was presented with a positive image.
The audience was spared Gregory Campbell and any potentially embarrassing ‘curry my yogurt’ moments, while it’s believed Willie McCrea’s traditional closing rendition of There’ll Always Be An Ulster was vetoed by senior party figures.
The front of the glossy conference brochure – ‘Standing Strong for Northern Ireland’ – had Arlene Foster and her deputy Nigel Dodds pictured on the steps of No 10, smiling as they embarked on the confidence and supply deal that would see the party’s MPs prop up a minority government in return for a potential £1 billion for Northern Ireland.
The sun is shining and they are enjoying their moment in it.
With Stormont dormant, the situation for the DUP isn’t entirely positive but its disproportionate influence at Westminster is a consolation the party can live with.
However, if direct rule beds in, it can’t be good for Mrs Foster as a leader without office.
Notably, in their respective speeches, the DUP leader and the party’s Westminster leader Mr Dodds thickly laid on the mutual praise.
Elsewhere, the conference saw contributions from two senior Tories – on Friday night it was First Secretary of State Damian Green, then on Saturday came the turn of Julian Smith, the Conservatives’ recently-appointed chief whip.
Another guest speaker was Deputy Chief Minister of Gibraltar Joseph Garcia, who listed innumerable problems Brexit will bring to the British territory yet, in common with the DUP, he’s determined to see it through.
In the end, despite Sammy Wilson characteristically stretching the bounds of taste by referring to Leo Varadkar as a ‘cowboy’ – as opposed to an ‘Indian’ – there was nothing to unnerve the English guests.
The anticipated influx of journalists from Britain never materialised on the scale suggested beforehand nor did the conference feel especially significant.
With the exception of Mr Dodds’s speech, references to Sinn Féin were conspicuous by their absence and, in glaring contrast to last year when with an election looming Mike Nesbitt was a bête noire, there wasn’t a single mention of his successor Robin Swann.
We saw sporadic celebrations of that particular brand of unionism that looks like Northern Ireland nationalism but all in all it was a rather flat event without controversy.
One of the few noteworthy aspects was the unveiling of a couple of new recruits, one of whom is a former Alliance councillor in Lisburn.
Vasundhara Kamble quit Naomi Long’s party last year before urging voters to support the SDLP in her constituency. Now she feels at home in the DUP.
Last year’s conference climaxed with the now-infamous ‘Arlene’s on fire’ but this time around the atmosphere was much more subdued and dignified.
Whether this remains the case in years to come is likely to depend more on events at Westminster than developments closer to home.