Polite old days give way to fire and fury from jeering hecklers

 

In the old days Ulster Unionist conferences were sedate affairs. A morning of polite debate, unanimous support for the party leader and pleasant conversation in the foyer afterwards.

Not any more. There was hissing and jeering, shouting and screaming, fire and fury at the weekend gathering.

The 470 delegates were overwhelmingly male, middle-class and middle-aged.

There were discussions on transport, industry and Ulster-Scots, but the hurly-burly came in the political debate.

It began with Ken Maginnis.

Defending David Trimble's strategy, he said the death rate from paramilitary violence had fallen 70 per cent in five years. "Because the Provos have got what they want," came shouts from the floor.

He listed statistics for police deaths before the peace process.

"They didn't die to let the RUC die," somebody yelled. "Give us the figures on punishment beatings, Ken," someone else shouted.

Dozens of delegates hissed and jeered. Mr Maginnis struggled to be heard.

He questioned the hecklers' motives. "Some people need people to die so they can lament," he shouted.

"Shame! Shame!", "Shut up!" and "Go home, Ken!" rang from the floor. Mr Trimble, seated on the platform, didn't know which way to look.

The anti-agreement heroine, Jean Coulter, a doughty Sandy Row pensioner, took the stage.

She listed a string of concessions to Sinn Fein. Jeffrey Donaldson clapped so loudly he was bouncing up and down in his seat.

Would any unionist who voted for the Belfast Agreement do so now? Jean asked. "Yes!" shouted Trimble supporters. "Shame on you for calling yourselves unionists," she yelled. "You should go and join the Shinners."

"You should go and join the DUP!" somebody shouted back.

Not all women opposed the agreement. Irene Cree climbed to the platform and turned her back to delegates "so you can see I've backbone".

She chided Mr Maginnis's hecklers: "Can those who have left their good manners behind please go home for them?"

Even Mr Trimble's critics admitted his performance was impressive. His speech might have been short on substance but it was smart and stylish.

He talked about the increasing number of women in the workforce, a first for any UUP leader. He was proud Belfast nowadays resembled any modern British city. He welcomed the arrival of more ethnic minorities.

Martin McGuinness in government wasn't a defeat. It was amazing that "the man who tried to destroy partition is helping administer Northern Ireland within the UK on behalf of her majesty".

Two-thirds of delegates gave him a standing ovation.

Messrs Donaldson, Ross et al remained firmly seated. No senior anti-agreement politician spoke during the political debate.

"We're saving it for the Ulster Unionist Council meeting," confided a prominent No campaigner. "This was only a skirmish. It's then the real battle will begin."