DUP leader Arlene Foster to reflect on rollercoaster year at party conference

Democratic Unionist leader Arlene Foster will address supporters today at the DUP's first party conference since becoming political kingmakers at Westminster.

Mrs Foster is sure of a rousing reception when she takes to the stage in Belfast this afternoon to reflect on a rollercoaster year for her and her party.

From facing down intense calls to quit amid a furore about a botched green energy scheme to standing on the steps of Downing Street with the fate of Theresa May's minority government in her hands, 2017 will not be one Mrs Foster forgets in a hurry.

Despite the likely triumphant mood at the La Mon hotel on the outskirts of the city, the conference comes at a time of major challenges for the DUP at home and further afield.

The powersharing crisis triggered by the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme appears as far from resolution as ever, with Northern Ireland having been without a properly functioning powersharing administration since January when Mrs Foster was forced from her role as first minister by the late Martin McGuinness's decision to quit as deputy first minister.

Significant issues still stand in the way of a deal between the DUP and Sinn Féin that would see them return as coalition partners in a devolved executive. A return to Westminster direct rule looks a more likely prospect at present.

The impasse has left Northern Ireland without a voice in Brexit negotiations at a time when crucial decisions about the future of the Irish border are due to be made.

Relations between the DUP and Irish Government have deteriorated in recent months as the former has responded angrily to Dublin's insistence that Northern Ireland should continue to comply with an EU customs framework when the rest of the UK exits the single market and customs union.

The DUP insists that Northern Ireland must be treated the same as the rest of the UK.

The matter will come to a head in the days and weeks before December's crucial EU summit in Brussels, when the remaining 27 member states will decide whether enough clarity has been achieved on the border issue to progress Brexit talks to the next stage.

If the UK government was to give any ground on Dublin and Brussels's preferred plan for avoiding a hard border, it would undoubtedly put serious strain on the DUP's confidence and supply deal with Mrs May.

The agreement, that was signed in exchange for a Conservative Party promise of an extra £1bn of spending in Northern Ireland, enabled the Prime Minister to retain power after June's poor showing in the general election.

The signing of the confidence and supply deal, which sees the DUP's 10 MPs support the Government on crucial votes, is set to be front and centre of proceedings at today's conference.

The front of party conference literature has been adorned with a picture of a smiling Mrs Foster and deputy leader Nigel Dodds outside No 10.

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