Peter Robinson opens his last DUP conference
North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds viewed as main contender to succeed Robinson as leader
Nigel Dodds, Arlene Foster and party leader Peter Robinson at the annual DUP conference at the Lamon House hotel in Castlereagh on Friday. Photograph: Stephen Hamilton/Presseye
The last DUP conference with Peter Robinson as leader opened in east Belfast on Friday with the anticipated main contenders to succeed him as leader and First Minister remaining quiet about whether they will seek the top posts.
Delegates will pay close attention to what North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds and the Minister of Finance and Personnel Arlene Foster say when they address the conference room in the La Mon Hotel on the outskirts of east Belfast on Saturday.
Mr Dodds is viewed as the main contender to succeed Mr Robinson as leader while Ms Foster is seen as the most likely Assembly member to take on the role of First Minister. They were keeping their own counsel on the succession on Friday with both preferring to let the two-day conference pay tribute to Mr Robinson who is stepping down as First Minister and DUP leader after 44 years in politics.
DUP politicians and delegates spoken to on the margins of the conference on Friday evening appeared in little doubt the succession process will end with Mr Dodds and Ms Foster in the two top positions.
A minor question mark was over whether Mr Dodds would want the leader’s job. It was remarked how he caused political surprise when in 2009 he stood down after a year in post as the finance minister to concentrate on his Westminster work, with Sammy Wilson taking on the finance portfolio.
Senior party sources however advised against any speculation that Mr Dodds would stand aside from this opportunity. “Let’s say it would be an absolute bombshell if Nigel didn’t want the job,” said one inner circle DUP figure.
The party’s 90-member executive – five members from each of the North’s 18 constituencies – must then ratify their decision. It will then be for the new leader to decide who should be First Minister. It is expected that Ms Foster would also seek the deputy leader job.
There is also the possibility that some other DUP politician might challenge her for the deputy position but so far no one has declared.
Mr Robinson, who will deliver his final keynote leader’s conference address at noon today, as normal did not speak at Friday’s public session of the conference although he was at the La Mon Hotel taking the best wishes of delegates.
The DUP still has not named a date for the succession although it is expected it will be in early January.
“A billion more for health is a big but necessary boost in funding for my department. If we are to deal with waiting lists, fund new drugs and treatments and reform the health service then health needs more resources,” he said.
The Minister for Regional Development Michelle McIlveen, said the DUP and “devolution had delivered for Northern Ireland”. “With Peter at the helm, we were at the forefront in developing the programme for government and the subsequent budget. Our party’s principle goal was to move Northern Ireland forward,” she added.