It has been a while. Covid-19 means it has been three years since the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) last gathered for a party conference and, at the risk of stating the obvious, much has changed.
Turmoil within the DUP saw it oust one leader, and then another; electorally, Sinn Féin has outstripped it to return the largest number of Member of Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland (MLAs) — and therefore the position of First Minister — for the first time, and the recent census results showed not only that Protestants no longer make up the largest religious grouping, but that society in Northern Ireland is becoming more secular and more diverse.
Yet it is equally clear that, to borrow that well-known phrase, the more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same.
Northern Ireland is again without a powersharing government, and while the UK has now left the EU, the Northern Ireland protocol — the consequence of Brexit — continues to bedevil its politics and — thanks to the DUP’s decision to quit Stormont until matters are resolved to its satisfaction — to block the functioning of the Assembly.
“Brexit’s in everything,” was the take of one delegate to the last conference, while others bemoaned how the party had been “shafted” by then prime minister Boris Johnson; three years on, the protocol’s position at the head of the DUP’s list of problems and the fear of fresh betrayal by No 10 will only add to the sense of deja vu.
The DUP’s delight at the accession of Liz Truss, the very woman who, as foreign secretary, introduced the Northern Ireland protocol bill, and her appointment of two former heads of the hardline Eurosceptic ERG, Chris Heaton-Harris and Steve Baker to the Northern Ireland brief, was short-lived, killed off by the thawing of relations between the UK and the EU and Ireland.
The resumption on Thursday of technical discussions amid much talk of a “window of opportunity” and negotiated solutions — and even the apology from Baker and acknowledgment “humility” was needed — will have sown worry deep in DUP hearts.
“They will have been spooked by the stuff that began to emerge at this week’s Conservative Party conference, that there was something happening, the mood music was changing, and the very fact they didn’t go to the conference ... is interesting because it clearly suggests they weren’t expecting anything and they got nothing, not even the smallest of small bones thrown to them,” says political commentator Alex Kane.
In this context, Jeffrey Donaldson’s first conference speech as party leader will be “difficult to pitch,” says Jon Tonge, professor of politics at the University of Liverpool. “First of all, he has to give the impression his party isn’t being sold out again, as it would be a colossal embarrassment for the DUP.
“Secondly, he does have to somehow — and a party conference is hardly the forum for that — acknowledge that compromises will be required from his own party in terms of what’s coming down the track, while also offering some red meat to the assembled faithful who want to hear they’ve secured some sort of victory from staying out of Stormont.”
Not for the first time, Donaldson has a line to walk between the moderates and the hardliners; he must remain strong and unyielding on the protocol and clear on the consequences if the party’s demands are not met — not least as a reminder to the UK government — while at the same time allowing that room for compromise.
It will come as no surprise that in his speech Donaldson is expected to reiterate the DUP’s position — that the protocol is not acceptable to unionists and that it must be replaced with arrangements unionism can support or there will be no return to Stormont.
In the short term, there remains the prospect of a fresh Assembly election, with a deadline looming at the end of the month — though among political circles in the North there is little expectation the Secretary of State will carry through on this threat; any progress in the talks, says Tonge, would give Heaton-Harris the “wriggle room” to postpone it.
A well-placed DUP source said the party had “no fear” of an election and it would be “quietly confident” of gaining seats; while this may well be true, says David McCann, the deputy editor of political website Slugger O’Toole, another vote would simply reinforce the status quo.
“The DUP polled only just over 21 per cent of the vote in May, polls are showing them at around 24 now so they could cannibalise a bit of that TUV [Traditional Unionist Voice] vote, but that’s not going to change the fundamental dynamic that Sinn Féin will still be the largest party.”
Yet its standing in the polls also means there is no pressure on the DUP from its voters to get back into Stormont — though this may change as the cost-of-living crisis begins to really bite this winter.
The protocol will overshadow the conference, yet it is telling that it is nowhere to be seen on its agenda. Instead, there are panel discussions on local government and childcare; a schedule, says Tonge, which indicates its focus is not on any Assembly election, but on next year’s local elections.
The more things change, the more they stay the same; expect no change from the DUP — and therefore no restoration of Stormont — any time soon.