A united DUP emerges fighting from 'rally'
"IT'S not a conference at all," confided South Down Assemblyman, Jim Wells, "It's more a Nuremberg rally." He's right of course. It is a trend true of many other party conferences, but the DUP is no "other party" - and they know it.
Before the Rev Ian Paisley was escorted through the throng of ecstatic supporters by a lone piper for the leader's address, the conference had already rattled through six debates in two hours. The topics of enterprise, trade and investment, health and social development were aired and dismissed with a unanimous show of hands. At one stage the chairman, Maurice Morrow, called for a vote with the words ". . . and those against - if any". Dissent and division are alien concepts.
Mr Wells, delighted that so many had turned up for the rally in his home constituency of South Down, was able to laugh off the nay-sayers who had warned that Newcastle was "too remote". "Well here they are," he beamed. "And they're hanging from the rafters." Indeed they were, conscious to the last of them that this was a party on a roll. Not just an electoral surge, but a great push forward which would see off the double dealers of the Northern Ireland Office, the "Celtic supporter", Dr John Reid, and the Lundies, liars and betrayers in the UUP. They would banish the pantomime horse of the Alliance Party and Women's Coalition - "the girls who like to say yes" as Sammy Wilson put it.
Dr Paisley's address, true to the Nuremberg metaphor, was a lesson in crowd control and mood manipulation. He steered his followers through the peaks and troughs of his oratory. Booming one minute, hushed the next. Scathing yet funny, foreboding yet inspiring his congregation, for that's what it was, with hope of political deliverance.
It even had echoes of an infamous Oxford Union debate decades ago when he famously ridiculed the consecration and the concept of transubstantiation. He re-employed the notion, saying the Women's Coalition and the Alliance Party had been transformed into unionists for the day solely for the purpose of seeing off a tough Assembly vote for David Trimble.
This was no speech, nor an event, that had much time for ifs, buts or maybes. There was no talk of coalition-building, of reaching out to the other side, of seeking the middle ground or building consensus. But there was plenty about the need for victory, of the fight of good against evil, right against wrong, and the sinned-against people of Ulster by the spineless, gutless authors of the Belfast Agreement.
This was a party that sees itself built of rocks of principle and cemented with the utter conviction of their case against an array of enemies. It stands as the only reliable defender of Ulster and the Union in a dangerous and nefarious world. Of course the DUP realises that simply being right is not enough. You also need tactics to defend your own and defeat the would-be oppressor. Those were spelled out on Saturday.
Thankfully, this party does not require outsiders to second-guess its intentions or read between the lines of speeches for a clue as to what is really going on. It's all up front. Dr Paisley prides himself, as he did in this newspaper on Saturday, on straight talking, and it's a trait his deputy, Peter Robinson, adopts as well.
Firstly, the DUP will make a warm home for those Ulster Unionists who have seen the error of their party's ways. Pauline Armitage and Peter Weir (the former has been disciplined, the latter expelled for not supporting David Trimble in the vote for First Minister) were invited by name to do the decent thing. Secondly, when the next Westminster election comes, the DUP will fight all 18 constituencies. "And if we are to vary that strategy it will only be on the basis of a corresponding UUP withdrawal on a seat-by-seat basis in constituencies of equal attraction," said Peter Robinson.
His aim is to present the DUP as the strong party of opposition to the Belfast Agreement and to capitalise on what it identifies as growing unionist disillusion. Mr Robinson, in an effort to establish ever-clearer distinctions, made it clear that votes for anti-Agreement UUP candidates are all lumped in together with the pro-Agreement total.
Thirdly, by establishing themselves as the majority voice of unionism, they will demand and achieve a renegotiation of the Belfast Agreement.
"No agreement is viable in Northern Ireland without the consent of a majority of unionists," Dr Paisley warned. With an agreement which is so cemented into the principle of consent and reinforced with a complex structure of checks and balances, he is surely right. It is his intention to be the holder of that trump card after the next election and to play it ruthlessly.
Perhaps those who authored the Belfast Agreement may yet live to regret the decision to run with what they had, and to leave Dr Paisley and followers on the margins.