Much will be written about what sort of a message the DUP leadership is seeking to send to Boris Johnson in their conference speeches, and there is plenty of material to go on.
Arlene Foster said the prime minister had been banished to Westminster’s “naughty step” by her parliamentary party. Her deputy Nigel Dodds, meanwhile, stressed that the union would always be non-negotiable. He repeatedly warned Johnson to stick to his promise to last year’s DUP conference – that no British prime minister could ever agree to a border in the Irish Sea.
But anyone listening to today’s big speeches – from Foster, Dodds, chief whip Jeffrey Donaldson and South Belfast MP Emma Little-Pengelly – will have quickly realised that the DUP has a rather more important audience in mind: its electorate.
Significantly, Foster made clear that – no matter the party’s Brexit woes – it is ready to face the voters. “There is much talk about the holding of a general election,” she told delegates. “This party is ready for any general election that may come.” Though her call for Johnson to return to Brussels to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement will generate plenty of column inches, that was the most significant news her speech held for Westminster. She stopped some way short, however, of saying her MPs would vote for it.
Being up for an election is one thing, but how do they intend to fight it? Today’s speeches set out the broad contours of its campaign pitch. Dodds, for instance, spoke of the need for unionism to send “its strongest team, leading from the front to protect our place in the Union and to get the best deal for Northern Ireland”.
Foster struck a similar note. With the Ulster Unionists about to anoint a new leader, Steve Aiken – and unionist anger over Brexit running high – it was a clear appeal to voters not to risk unionist representation at Westminster by abandoning the DUP.
Along with Donaldson – whose speech focussed on just how the party was spending the additional funding for Northern Ireland the party had secured through its confidence and supply arrangement with the Conservatives – Foster also sought to highlight just what those MPs would do: vote down any Brexit deal that imperilled the union, and support any measures that protected it.
Yet she also went out of her way to stress that the DUP would work not just for its own voters, but those that disagreed with the very fundamentals of its worldview: Irish nationalists. Foster sought to recast the £1 billion pricetag for her deal with the Tories as a windfall for both communities in Northern Ireland, rather than unionists alone. “We have used our ten votes to help everyone,” she insisted. The fact that the party turns up and uses those votes, unlike Sinn Féin, is a big plank of its electoral pitch.
That goes a long way to explaining why, regardless of how parlous their relationship with the Conservatives, DUP politicians have stopped short of declaring their confidence and supply agreement dead – to do so would be to undermine its own claims of influence.
There was plenty more emollience too. Foster criticised unionists who waged culture wars – a criticism often levelled at her own party, and, indeed, her own MPs. She stressed that there was no conflict in supporting the union and speaking the Irish language – her resistance to legislating to protect the latter being one of the main obstacles to the restoration of devolution. Indeed, she hinted repeatedly that she was willing to agree to an Irish language act.
That sort of message has less to do with winning nationalist voters – which the DUP, plainly, is never going to do in meaningful numbers – but recapturing the knack Peter Robinson, Foster’s predecessor and the party’s great strategic genius, had for political messaging.
Robinson – once the enfant terrible of hardline loyalism – was able to craft a unionism that was broadly accommodating of nationalism. His successor has often seemed brittle and uncomfortable doing the same, and largely lacks his political nous. The result has been a DUP – and by extension a unionist movement – that seems ill at ease with a Northern Ireland that, as Foster herself acknowledged, is fast outgrowing orange and green. “Unionism should be inclusive, welcoming, and embracing to all,” with some irony, she insisted
Foster’s speech was an attempt to put right that failing, and address the looming existential challenges laid out in Little-Pengelly’s speech on a unionism for the next generation: namely the DUP’s stunted appeal to the young, who are increasingly plumping for parties who profess to be agnostic on the constitutional question, and its lingering association with sectarian bigotry.
Will her efforts to rehabilitate her party in the eyes of those voters succeed? If it is to turn the challenge of a Brexit election into an opportunity, it will need to. But whether Foster is the woman to do so remains unclear.