I went to the DUP Conference and what I found was disturbingly familiar – this is our new Ukip

Ordinarily, this volume of Union Jacks heralds the arrival either of Land of Hope and Glory or Nigel Farage

Tom Peck
Political Sketch Writer
Sunday 26 November 2017 01:16
Comments
Arlene Foster addresses DUP Conference: "We want a sensible Brexit"

I begin with reluctance on a personal note, but perhaps the solitary upside in the unrelenting horror show that has been the last two long years of British politics was meant to be the electoral death of Ukip and thus not having to attend its conference anymore.

In fact, in transpires, not only do you still have to go to it, you have to fly to Belfast for it.

It’s got a new name, admittedly. It calls itself the Democratic Unionist Party conference now. But it’s a blizzard of weird Union Jack waving nationalism with the Conservative Party in its back pocket so it is, by definition, one and the same.

I’d been warned but I wasn’t ready. I’d not been out the car for more than second before I’d seen my first Union Jack, set in leather on the handbag of a sexagenarian delegate on her way in to the La Mon Country Club in the hills outside Belfast.

So total is the destruction of what passes for British politics at the moment, it is occasionally overlooked that there is one small party that has emerged not merely unscathed but utterly triumphant from its smoking wreckage.

To arrive at a party conference that is not some dystopian carnival of division, disappointment and resentfulness is decidedly odd these days. The DUP has never quite had it so good.

It campaigned for Brexit. It got it. And by virtue of some truly unlikely political maths, it holds the balance of power in Westminster and has a highly controversial £1.5bn in its back pocket to show for it.

Indeed, so unimaginably fortunate has it been that its Deputy Leader, Nigel Dodds, told his beaming congregation, and I do mean congregation: “I don’t think it can be an accident.”

A spokesperson would later clarify that, yes, “this is an allusion to a higher power as it were”.

After the Lord’s intervention, Mr Dodds would explain: “It’s hard to imagine how the results could have done more to maximise our influence.”

It is possible, in such moments, to feel sorry for Theresa May. As the daughter of an Anglican priest, it is fair to imagine in her quiet moments she ponders on quite what it is she has done to deserve her current fate.

That it should be the consequence of the Lord himself imposing himself on the Brexit discussions via support for the Democratic Unionists is especially cruel.

Cruel indeed, but not altogether surprising. In the popular imagination, God is still considered to be an elderly, white male, with opinions unblemished by at least 2,000 years of social change, so it certainly cannot be ruled out that he was a hiding in plain sight in the conference hall on Saturday afternoon, waving a plastic Union Jack and emitting low level growls at every mention of the words Sinn Fein.

Still, at least we now have Holy Brexit to add to the mix.

Is it clean? Probably not. Is it hard? Oh yes. Is it smooth? Unlikely. Soft? No. Sensible? Definitely not. Jobs first? No idea. But one thing cannot be in doubt: It is definitely red, white and blue.

The Lord hath spoken, and through choosing the DUP as his vehicle through which to assert influence on the Brexit process, we are able to ascertain a much clearer picture of God’s desired Brexit outcomes.

He has ruled out the possibility of Northern Ireland remaining in the customs union (and, through the medium of party leader Arlene Foster, written to the heads of the 27 EU members states to make that point clear). We know that He will not countenance any kind of border within the union of the United Kingdom and would appear alarmingly relaxed about the return of a hard border to the island of Ireland.

Before arriving at the DUP conference, I had, I confess, become deeply confused by the politics of it all. Of why a Northern Irish party, and one that is used to the realities of governing, would be explicitly in favour of Brexit, with all the great risks it poses to the precarious political settlement in Northern Ireland.

But when you arrive at what bears every outward resemblance to a Belfast Ukip rally, albeit with a Tory colour scheme and indeed a cameo from the new Chief Whip Julian Smith, the riddle stops being wrapped in a mystery.

Flag-waving nationalism is not given to practical concern for its practical consequences. Ordinarily, this volume of Union Jacks heralds the arrival either of Land of Hope and Glory or Nigel Farage.

The DUP appear acutely aware of the risks of Brexit, and there is no surer sign of that than the moves to pre-apportion blame for its failure. Nigel Dodds was at pains to point out that “if the EU wants to insist on border check points on the island of Ireland that is a matter for them”.

When you put it to him, as I did afterwards, that it was the UK, and not the EU, or indeed Dublin that was changing the game, past grievances did not take long to emerge. “We’ve faced an economic border with Ireland for many years. The Irish Republic, for instance, broke parity with sterling, which we'd had for decades, and joined the euro when the rest of the UK didn’t. So the Republic has put up economic barriers to trade previously with Northern Ireland. We worked our way through that, when they did that to us, and we will now work through the consequences of Brexit with them.”

This year, I’m told, was comparatively tame stuff. With the glare of the spotlight suddenly shining bright upon them, they were on their best behaviour, even if the names of Laura Kuenssberg and Robert Peston remained solemnly un-crossed through on the accredited guest list. The Union Jacks weren’t even passed round until after lunch. There was no folksy singing of There’ll Always be An Ulster. Their shall we say “traditional” views on abortion and gay marriage went un-uttered all day.

But there was a ramping up of rhetoric all round. This time last year, the DUP’s leader had not yet seen her power sharing executive collapse under her feet after the Renewable Heat Incentive Scandal, the Unionists had not all but lost the balance of power at Stormont in an unexpected election, Northern Ireland had not gone without an executive for almost a year.

At the time of her leader’s speech last year, Sinn Fein were her partners in government. This time round, as she emerged to wild cheers, they were accused of “glorifying the murder of the IRA”. A phrase that did not appear easy work for the on-stage signer for the deaf.

If you are of the view, as many are, that coming with Brexit is a hard border and at best a glance back down the avenue of the grim, recent past, there were words you will not wish to hear. Foster told Sinn Fein it was time they started “respecting the British flag, the Royal Family and the Armed Forces”.

They clapped like mad at that. But if a condition of a return to power sharing is Sinn Fein respecting the British armed forces, one suspects the current 10-month wait is scarcely the beginning.

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