A priest on the podium as Robinson prepares DUP troops for election battle

Analysis: a little bit of history was made at the DUP annual conference

DUP leader Peter Robinson at the party’s annual conference in Belfast. Photograph: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye.

DUP leader Peter Robinson at the party’s annual conference in Belfast. Photograph: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye.

Mon, Nov 25, 2013, 01:00

The focus at the DUP annual conference at the weekend was back to the first principle of politics: get elected.

Aside from that, there was yet another little bit of history made: the appearance for the first time of a Catholic priest both at the DUP dinner in the La Mon Hotel on Friday night and on the platform on Saturday afternoon.

Secretary to the Northern Catholic bishops Fr Tim Bartlett was there to join a panel discussion on the subject, does diversity mean division?

The debate was interesting enough but it was his presence alone that made a point about the DUP, and its efforts to take over some of the middle- ground in Northern Ireland.

Conservative position
Robinson himself also believes that the DUP’s conservative position on issues such as abortion, same sex-marriage and gay adoption could draw some Catholic voters to his party.

It’s an awful long way from the days of anti-Catholic rhetoric to Fr Bartlett in his clerical garb being politely applauded at a DUP annual conference jamboree. Northern Ireland is still slowly changing.

Not that the party has gone soft. On Friday deputy leader Nigel Dodds was given the job of laying into Sinn Féin, portraying senior members as a bunch of “failures”, and much more besides. That business out of the way Robinson could be more considered in his keynote speech on Saturday. In relation to the flags disorder he said that there could “be no distinction between violence by loyalists and violence by dissident republicans”. That’s not groundbreaking but some people including Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness like to hear him say such things.

On John Larkin’s no prosecutions call he said there could be no amnesty for those who committed Troubles-related killings but there were no harsh words for his and Mr McGuinness’s Attorney General who has started a necessary debate.

He also spoke about issues such as the Disappeared, victims and economic progress, but the big concentration was elsewhere. There are European and “super” local elections coming up in May and the First Minister’s first priority at the weekend was to get his troops battle-ready, which he did.

Robinson, after more than 40 years in politics, knows the importance of organisation and this past weekend the DUP appeared supremely well prepared for the May elections to the North’s three-seater European constituency and to the 11 newly restructured councils.

It seems a given that there is one nationalist seat in Europe with Sinn Féin’s Martina Anderson favourite to hold her seat against the challenge of the SDLP’s Alex Attwood.

The sitting Ulster Unionist Party MEP Jim Nicholson has held his seat for the past 24 years but Robinson is eyeing his scalp. Today the DUP leader will be happy he has galvanised the faithful for the electoral challenges ahead and put fear into the heart of the Ulster Unionist Party and its MEP. It’s the type of bloodsport that keeps him energised.