Peter Robinson: the folly of tactics over strategy; and space hoppers

The progress towards an agreement on policing and justice has taken more twists and turns than seemed believable when the current negotiations started. Currently it seems that the DUP are locked in discussion as to whether or not they can accept the current agreement.

It is unclear exactly what the final draft will be but unless it is collapsed at the last minute it seems that the devolution of policing and justice will occur within the next few months. Where now the talk of political lifetimes?

Gregory Campbell may have tried heroically on Nolan this morning to keep up the talk of six months or six years but it sounded pretty unconvincing. However, now at the last possible moment it seems as if some in the DUP are willing to try for something better.

The problem is that as their options have narrowed their aspirations have shrunk to an extent which is almost pitiful. It seems the arguments are around the timing of any concessions on parading and possibly a few other minor gains. Compare this with the suggestion that the DUP would not be bounced into P&J devolution.

The once proud DUP, preparing humiliation after humiliation for Sinn Fein have been reduced to this.

With any DUP capitulation of course unionist confidence, something I suggested there was good reason for a few short weeks ago, is now severely dented. The DUP should not pretend that any agreement which devolves P&J in the near future will be anything other than a major humiliation for the them and a major dent to unionist confidence.

In contrast republican confidence will soar and no doubt Mick’s suggestion of a return of the unity by 2016 nonsense will recur (I wonder where you got that line Mick).

Once the DUP told us that they would not be bounced into P&J devolution. The reason why the DUP are now acting like the space hopper I greatly enjoyed as a child is, of course complex. It is maybe worth a brief look as sooner or later someone will have to begin to put together the pieces of unionist confidence and rebuild.

Irisgate has of course been a problem: it shattered the DUP’s air of invulnerability and although Robinson himself may not have been massively damaged there is the suspicion that those scandals have not fully played themselves out. Irisgate also brought low the seemingly impervious Peter Robinson, a man who always looked in control of his own fate.

Objectively he handled himself pretty well during the media storm and managed to garner significant sympathy. However, that seemingly clinical, ice cold, calculating politician was revealed as a mere mortal like the rest of us: the admittedly non charismatic but rock like mystique was smashed irrevocably.

However, Irisgate was only the final, most obvious straw, which brought the DUP low. The problems of the Swish family Robinson, the expenses scandal, the multi-jobbing and possibly most of all the family dynasties all contributed to bring down the DUP from their exalted position.

Two other factors are, I would submit, however, the most important in understanding the current DUP predicament and they are interrelated.

The first which is known to the political cognoscenti more than the general population is of course the change in the mechanism for electing the First Minister which was enacted after the St. Andrew’s Agreement. As most readers now know it was none other than Peter Robinson who acquiesced to the change which made the First Minister’s position within the gift of the largest party rather than the largest party of the largest designation (unionist or nationalist). No other decision in the whole of Peter Robinson’s long political career better demonstrates his tactical cunning or his strategic idiocy than this decision. At the time it was a master stroke: it seemed that Robinson had produced a formula to force unionists, in perpetuity, to support the major unionist party lest the First Ministership fall to Sinn Fein. Of all Robinson’s tactical manoeuvrings over the years to defeat the UUP, this was his most brilliant. Finally the DUP were insured against any realistic likelihood of a UUP comeback. It was a decision of tactical brilliance.

It also demonstrated in the starkest possible relief why Robinson’s understanding of unionism is incomplete and why he is the most strategically flawed of recent unionist leaders: even more so than Trimble.

So little had Robinson thought about the longer term strategy that he seems not to have conceived of a time when the DUP would not be likely to be able to command the majority of unionist votes. Such an idea seems not to have crossed his mind: or it did and was dismissed with the arrogant contempt of one who had come to believe his own propaganda. The DUP had negotiated the best possible deal: how could the unionist community think differently. How could any serious unionist apart from the die hard UUP types not see that the DUP had achieved all that unionism could want.

What Robinson had forgotten was that in the dark past the DUP had been the party of which did not really do tactical cunning, not for them the sharp suits, focus groups and media savvyness: it did simple old fashioned hard line unionism; a unionism which told it as it was. Although that constituency of hard line unionists had not always voted DUP (the UUP once held some of that vote) it was the bedrock of traditional unionism. The fundamentalist Protestants of North and East Antrim, the Orangemen of County Londonderry, the paranoid border Protestants of the dreary steeples. For these people the DUP had once represented the party which would not enter power sharing with those who had murdered their kith and kin, would not compromise on the basic tenet that the causers of the mayhem of the past thirty years should not have control of the levers of power. That constituency held that if the price of power was to hand similar power to the IRA’s political representatives then it was not worth the price.

Robinson’s blunder was to think that these people had either gone away or were so wedded to the DUP that they would never switch to anyone else. He seems to have thought that the magic of the DUP party name and Dr. Paisley would ensure that any deal cut by the DUP was the best possible: Carlsberg do not do political deals for unionism but if they did….

Robinson, however, had forgotten that independent streak in those Prods: once they had deserted the UUP to help Paisley found his new party; later others had defected to make the DUP the top unionist party. However, they were not completely enraptured to the DUP and its charismatic leader. That of course led on to Robinson’s next almost as fatal mistake.

When Dr. Paisley stepped down from the MEP post which he had held Robinson needed a suitable new candidate. He did not want a person whose profile would be raised too much: he did not want a potential rival to his place as the heir apparent. Hence, it was a clever wheeze (and it was assuredly Robinson’s own idea) to find a name from the DUP’s past: a man of considerable talent but to Robinson’s eyes one who would not be a threat. Does Peter remember which tie he wore when he went to see Jim Allister? does he remember the crunch of his shoes on Allister’s drive? does he remember his first words? presumably he had had a chance to rehearse them in the car.

Although Robinson did not know it at the time he had in those two decisions: the First Ministership’s election and the choice of European candidate; the beginnings of what would bring him to his current problems. Those two decisions encapsulate all that has made Peter Robinson such an effective politician and the exact reason why he is now trapped in a nightmare of his own creation. They demonstrate like a morality tale of old the difference between tactics and strategy; the difference between cunning and vision.

Even at bay, however, Robinson still has ideas: the prospect of an understanding with the UUP may be flawed by the old animosities but it does hold out some possibilities.

At the moment, however, the DUP seem to be thinking of the prospect of some sort of pact as a way of minimising the damage they are likely to suffer at the hands of the electorate. Indeed if it could by chance work out it might save a few DUP members from their P45s. However, again it is a tactic. If the DUP could forge an understanding with the UUP they might be able to do a deal and still hold enough seats after the nest Stormont elections to keep the first ministership. Again a clever tactic: again a lack of strategic vision.

When the DUP were in their pomp after the recommencement of devolution they could dismiss Sinn Fein’s threats regarding collapse of the agreement. If SF had done so the DUP reasoning was that they would come back to a practically identical set up with no major gains. That was the calculation before the European election when Robinson predicted Jim Allister gaining 20-30,000 votes. Now the idea of a tie up with the UUP seems to be to do the deal on P&J and then try to get a deal with the UUP to hold the line.

There is another possibility but that requires a strategic vision which Robinson has never held: one I advocated before Irisgate ever happened but the possibility of a UUP understanding might hold out.

Robinson could simply hold out and allow Sinn Fein to collapse the agreement. Then if he could arrange a tie up with the UUP he could go into the election. In such an election he could pose as the hard liner who both for practical and principled reasons would not bow the knee to Sinn Fein. In such a scenario it is quite possible that the united unionist party would command more seats than Sinn Fein and hence, the First Ministership. Such an assembly with Sinn Fein little further on and with a cohort of TUV MLAs might then be the spring board for further negotiations except this time with the whip hand back with the DUP and not Sinn Fein.

Such a possibility is almost certainly pie in the sky: Reg Empey lacks the courage and vision to take such an opportunity imperilling as it might the Conservative tie up even more than his recent vacillation has; the suspicion between the DUP and UUP probably runs too deep. A suspicion of course intensified by Robinson’s careful, methodical destruction of the UUP over the 1990s: again tactically brilliant, strategically lamentable. In addition Robinson probably lacks the strategic vision to even begin to go down such a route.

So now Robinson is faced by a party in partial revolt: unwilling to compromise now as many will be signing their political death warrants for a year hence; yet if they do not compromise now effectively accepting an earlier date for their own political execution. Never has Robinson’s tactical brilliance been needed more than now. Never has his strategic stupidity in bringing the DUP (and unionism) to this point been better demonstrated.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.