Tracey Magee: Jeffrey Donaldson speech at DUP conference comes as party at political crossroads

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is not a showy politician. Words often used to describe him include cautious, pragmatic, thoughtful.

Perhaps for that reason he chose not to stride onto the stage to loud music blaring over the speakers at the DUP’s party conference in Belfast. And maybe that accounts for the absence of the usual standing ovation from delegates as he took to the stage.

Instead, the applause, while loud, was delivered from a seated position.

Or maybe it’s because the DUP finds itself at a political crossroads. The party faithful attended its annual gathering of the clan knowing the choices it faces could have a lasting impact on its future and everyone else who lives in this small part of the world.

Negotiations between the DUP and the UK government are coming to an end – the party leader has made that clear.

The discussions may stretch to November - possibly even into December – but at some point the talking will end and hard decisions must be taken.

The problem is that only a trusted few at the top of the party know what is in the agreement being discussed. The key questions remain unanswered, what is in the deal being discussed and will it be enough to satisfy unionist discontent over post-Brexit trading arrangements? As a result uncertainty hung over the conference and infused the mood among delegates. It felt like a party where the guest of honour did not show up. In his speech today, Sir Jeffrey repeated the DUP’s objectives in the discussions: “Restoring and future-proofing in law our Article 6 rights under the Acts of Union, thus ensuring our ability to trade freely within the UK Internal Market, and securing further measures that will strengthen Northern Ireland’s place within the Union.” What was missing was the detail, instead came the usual holding statement. “Today I can report that we are making progress but there remains more work to do. I am hopeful that remaining concerns can be addressed as quickly as possible.” That’s not to underplay Sir Jeffrey speech which was subtle and far-reaching. This was an attempt to get his party, and wider unionism, to “face up to new realities” and adapt to “new circumstances.” His message was clear – the best protection for the union is a functioning Stormont. “I still believe in devolved government – this party still believes in having a locally elected representatives take decisions in the best interest of our people.” “But more than that if we want to make a positive case for the Union then having local institutions that succeed in delivering for everyone in Northern Ireland is an essential element in building our case.” Sir Jeffrey’s case is that a functioning Stormont will shut the door on republican calls for a border poll and allow the people of Northern Ireland to make decisions in their own best interests. And for those advocating direct rule the message was uncompromising. “Time and again,” he told delegates “Westminster has imposed laws upon us that are not in tune with the needs or wishes of the people of Northern Ireland.” “You cannot on the one had repeatedly condemn successive governments for letting us down and then argue with credibility that we are better off ruled by those who do not really understand what makes this place tick.” “Such an argument for any unionist to put forward is a nonsense. Having no say in our future will not be a recipe for success,” he concluded. The inference is clear – a return to Stormont is the best option for unionism, but can he deliver an agreement that will make that a possibility? That’s uncertain.

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