After Peter Robinson, are we seeing the start of softer, more seductive politics?

From where he came from, Peter Robinson has made big strides. At the point Northern Ireland society has reached, he comes across as a cautious consolidator, making a distinct if so far  unimaginative success of power sharing. In unionist terms, Peter is David Trimble’s heir in quieter times. After decades of often painful self discipline as Paisley’s respectful but never quite reverential deputy, he has even overcome hubris and family trauma to remain the inevitable DUP leader. With a carefully youthful hairstyle and keeping his weight down – no mean feat in a tray bake culture –  he manages  to look not quite his age.

Clearly he has been following the contemporary debates on history and politics or receiving astute briefings about them. This in itself is quite a departure for unionist politicians whose intellectual horizons and tastes have often been painfully narrow. Laying some of the old ghosts of unionist insecurity is well worth doing and shouldn’t be underestimated as an achievement.


But Peter’s case for the Union may rely overmuch on a partial reading of the Life and Times surveys of political attitudes. In fact the surveys suggest year after year that political attitudes are much softer than voting patterns on both sides.  While many Catholics may accept the Union, it is equally possible according to the surveys that if Catholic numbers increase just a little, Protestant acceptance of Irish unity will increase to the point that it becomes the democratically accepted future.  While Peter has not acknowledged this it will not have escaped his attention, nor Martin Mc Guinness’s.

So his confident-sounding appeal is not quite what it appears to be. Nevertheless, it raises the beguiling possibility of a competition between the DUP and Sinn Fein, not on the old angry narrow ground but on a new basis of soft, even seductive politics –  of which party can be nicer to the other side.  Far fetched?  Not altogether, if a trend is now being set, influenced by the broader underlying trends of public opinion.

So the rhetoric of a reconciling society we are hearing from the top of the Executive is encouraging. We can only hope it can be matched by activity when local communities can see the point of it  for themselves where they live, encouraged by elected representatives who no longer benefit from sectarian campaigning. There is quite a way to go before that desirable point is reached. But at least the grounds for sectarian campaigning are narrowing all the time. Employment and education now divide more on class and regional grounds. Culture, symbols and language seem to be the main battle ground but even here, some of the heat seems to be going out of them.

What keeps the main parties effective is first, their democratic centralism, i.e. tight party control, and second,  their perceived ombudsman and delivery role at local and personal level.  But the better the delivery at government and agency level the less will be the role of MLAs in the surgery.   Perhaps then Peter’s successors will turn to a clearer vision of NI’s place in the Union which is at ease with a warmer embrace of Irishness and fuller relations with the south in the interest of everybody in the North . In the meantime, the soft pedalling on identity politics perceptible on both sides can only be a good thing.

What sort of new leaders will emerge to replace Robinsons, McGuinnesses  and Adams ? They will certainly be a good deal more anonymous than the old warriors and with less – shall we say – colourful backgrounds.  The hobnobbing with Popes, Presidents and Prime Ministers which encouraged delusions of self- importance is no longer an automatic entitlement for the leadership of  a slowly normalising society.  An appropriate becoming modesty would be another good thing.

Some of the new cohort are in the wings already and are learning the give and take of debate. Their time to shine is now.  They should polish their pitches for the anniversaries and make them interesting to the other side too.  It would be good to think of Peter as their pacesetter.




Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

  • Drumlins Rock

    Have I missed something, is Peter retiring to to sunny Florida? With all these oozing tributes popping up I’m beginning to think there is something going on we havn’t heard about!

  • DR. Peter probably getting ready for a holiday on that sliver of land called the Floida panhandle. But seriously in about 15 years when there’s a slight catholic majority, jim Allister will be demanding that mandatory coalition to keep unionists in a contrived draw. less indigestion for him than catholic s as the majority.

  • AnAverageGael

    Looking at politics as a game, I think Robinson plays it very well (although his mention of resigning over the symbolism issue around prisons was a bit of low period). Always remaining a strict unionist, he does what is necessary for the sake of ‘stabilisation’. I’m sure deep down inside he wished there were 15ft walls built around the perimeter of the north which he has to except will never happen.

    He’s there to keep the unionist majority happy and uphold their traditions but I wont disagree that he’s playing a mutual role in ensuring that both sides can shake hands without feeling any level of discontent.

    I think if he smiled more, it would help his appeal. Its the simple things..

    The politics might be seductive, just not Mr Robinson. I think he has a bit of a way to go before he appeals to my liberal(ish) nature.

  • pauluk

    ‘ unimaginative’?

    With the double space in front of this word in the first paragraph of your article, it seems you struggled to find an appropriate word to describe Peter, Brian.

    The creativity that Peter has regularly displayed over recent years in dealing with numerous crises and challenges would suggest you have selected the wrong term.

  • Mick Fealty


    It’s hard to see what leadership in NI would look like without trying out a few folk in the place. But from what I see we are in the Craigavon/Brookeborough stage of the political process, albeit a double headed one.

    In other words, Robbo and McG can have these jobs for life. In the case of the DUP this means Robbo has considerable control over the longer term outcomes of the Peace Process.

    In the case of Sinn Fein, the leadership resides elsewhere, ie in Leinster House. So the project will not be defined by the settlement in the same way. Nor will its future leadership be shaped by it so much.

    It will be shaped by very different set of processes. The outcomes of which will have an uncertain set of implications for Northern Ireland.

    Any future Unionist leadership would do well to follow Robbos example and slowly ramp up its political influence in Dublin.

    One very painful lesson learned in the last forty years is that if you absent yourself from company people are apt to take the word of your opponents regarding your ‘bad character’.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Mick, its that “jobs for life” that can eventually give the rival parties an opening, when the underlings cant get to the top they will eventually turn on each other, there are patterns in politics that can be seen, Maggie Thatcher is another one of those who thought she has the job for life.
    I cant see much changing in the next assembly term, but after that the old faces will be disappearing in both parties, leaving the leader more isolated (by leader I mean Marty in SF, it essentially has partioned itself with two equal leaders now) Mike and Alastairs main task for this term is to make their partys credible enought to gain some ground next time round, they arent going to bring the government down anytime soon, its a long ball game that needs played.

  • Brian Walker

    While I can see the attractions of comparing the leaders to the Craigavon and Brookeborough eras there are big differences too, the scrutiny that comes with comparative delivery performance and the battery of bureaucratic and HR oversight, to name but two.
    I’m not close to it of course and I would not dissent from the strategic points made. But I’m beginning to ask the question – is anybody in charge of the longer term outcomes of the peace process” or is it bigger than all of them? If the old tunes are beginning to lack some resonance with the voters – or the wider public- what takes their place? Might the political class be starting to fall behind the curve? And at around 65 years of age, how long have the top leaders got?

  • Mick Fealty

    That’s fair Brian. Those are some of the things the incumbents blame (when they are not blaming each other) for not actually being able to do very much. The reason I went back to that earlier period is that they actually did not do very much that Westminster did not hog tie them into doing.

    I suspect that Robinson’s speech gives you part of your answer. His view appears to be that Unionists must remain flexible and prepared to fight new wars, not just fall back on old reflexes.

    And in conversation with an old dyed in the wool anti Shinner recently they admitted that if SF were ever to get into government in the Republic, they would be so transformed by the process as to mean that they would no longer be the threat to the state they once were.

    The process is something of a wave… and both northern players are surfing it pretty well just now… I doubt however,if even they know where it is ultimately going to take them…

  • Mick Fealty


    I don’t know exactly what the relationship between ‘the two leaders’ is, but I doubt it is equal.

  • “Have I missed something .. With all these oozing tributes popping up”

    DR, perhaps the émigrés haven’t got their finger on the pulse; perhaps puffoonery is rampant. There are steel fists in those velvet gloves and the directors of corporate communications in the OFMDFM and elsewhere have never had it so good.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Mick, I don’t know either but Gerry has been quite low key up North since his election in Louth, focusing on Dublin, however as the younger members get a sniff of power in the South there could be pressure on him to give way to the like of Pearse Doherty, becoming a southern focused party, the All-Ireland demension might prove to be a difficulty.

  • “But the better the delivery at government and agency level the less will be the role of MLAs in the surgery”

    Brian, it seems I need to be a little less direct! Perhaps The Detail will collect data from constituency offices for the past few years to determine whether or not MLAs and councillors are busier/idler than before. I’ve just spoken to a councillor in an MLA’s office and he says they’re not only busier, they’re snowed under.

    It would require detailed research to uncover why this should be the case. I suspect the cut-back in government and agency resources as well as the advent of new media will both be important but so too will be the effectiveness of a particular office.

  • “But at least the grounds for sectarian campaigning are narrowing all the time.”

    I view it differently, Brian. The Unionist-Nationalist gap is narrowing all the time and the symbolic position of First Minister feeds in to that so I’d expect sectarian campaigning to flourish.

    I’d imagine the present softer tones are an attempt by the DUP and SF to eat further into the UUP and SDLP vote as part of the competition for the First Minister’s chair.

    Should the MSM attempt to expose the less than perfect world of governance in Northern Ireland then we’d see a sharp (joint) change in tone.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Big ask there Nevin, I wouldn’t bank on it.

  • “But the better the delivery at government and agency level the less will be the role of MLAs in the surgery.” .. 2

    Brian, I’ve had a follow-up call from the constituency office. It seems that there are so many agencies which are so badly co-ordinated that an MLA could spend a lot of time in a mediation and managerial role just getting problems resolved. Bringing all the agents together at site meetings helps to not only speed up the process but also to get all of the misunderstandings and issues sorted.

  • Barnshee

    ” It seems that there are so many agencies which are so badly co-ordinated that an MLA could spend a lot of time in a mediation and managerial role just getting problems resolved”

    Really?? ! just remind me again of the successful/outstanding careers these poltroons have had and the wide range of skills (academic or otherwise) they bring to the assembly

  • Brian Walker

    nevin and others., I wasn’t actually suggesting that the nirvana of delivery had actually arrived, just hoping for progress!

    While MLAs and councillors may do a god job here, there’s a touch of phoniness about a role in which local reps claim to deliver what are actually entitlments to constituents.Now I’m not naive, I know the constiuency role has been an expanding universal trend for decades but – just to put it on the record – it is not what legislataors are supposed to be mainly about.

    Some of it is displacement activity – what else would they do? Some of it may have benign politcal effects, like Paisley’s famous boasting about delIvering for Catholics. That’s one good thing that can be said about it.

    But beware the clientelist trap that has so damaged the south’s political system.

  • Brian, you’ve moved from ‘the better the delivery of government’ to ‘the nirvana of delivery’. I’d like to see better and more open government but I feel we’re actually moving in the opposite direction and I’ve attempted to convey that feeling both here on Slugger and in NALIL blog. I contacted folks from two political parties yesterday; I’ve given a flavour of the first exchange but I’m still awaiting a promised response from the other.

    There could be phoniness or, indeed, fraudulence in the relationship between elected representative and constituent but the elected representative may be well placed to mediate the relationship between bureaucrat and constituent, especially if the constituent is lost in a bureaucratic maze. There may well be a bonus at the ballot box for those politicians and parties who come to the aid of constituents.

    Not all constituents are equal and IMO clientelism across these islands and elsewhere relates essentially to those clients/constituents who have the leverage to influence or overturn political, bureaucratic or judicial decisions. Some of the shenanigans in the South caused me to lift a few stones in the North but what I saw illustrated clientelism across these islands; the tentacles spread far, wide and deep.

    The Freedom of Information Act should be an aid to countering clientelism but, if you look at the minutes of meetings attended by politicians and/or bureaucrats and/or boards of arms-length agencies, you’ll see that many of these minutes have been truncated to the point of being almost information free.

    You suggest that a politician’s primary purpose is to legislate whereas, as an elected representative of the people, I think it’s in the public interest that his or her primary purpose should be to hold the ‘power-players’ to account. The power-players include Ministers, senior civil servants, media moguls, business magnates and trades’ unionists. Some Special Advisers may be up there with the other power-players. The remedy for abuses may involve new legislation but it may just require the application of existing legislation.

    You seem quite relaxed about ‘democratic centralists’ such as Peter and Martin being the ‘pacesetters’ – and then comes along the curtailment of advertising revenue to the MSM and the related curtailment of information to both the MSM and to the people. What else can I say but, “Beware the Powers of Seduction” 🙂

  • Brian Walker

    Very thoughtful nevin. You’re right about the scrutiny role of legislators. I haven’t “moved” if you recall the context and I accept the fact of DUP and SF internal party discipline. I’m surprised it has survived the new order so well : I would have expected more competition for office inside each party (maybe it goes on more below the surface than I know).
    You deserve congratulations for working in more contemporary references than I could even think of.

  • “I’m surprised it has survived the new order so well”

    I suppose it depends on how the parties currently deal with dissenting voices, Brian. I’m very much on the outside looking in – apart from a little bit of eavesdropping. There will be several dynamics at work. The paramilitary-style strong-arm tactics will still play there part in silencing some dissent but the softer line will also give others the confidence to act outside the confines of party discipline. For example, as I’ve previously stated, independent republicans took about 47% of the republican first preference vote in Moyle and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them eat deeper into the SF vote in future. This could be offset by a continuing decline in the fortunes of the SDLP. SF wasn’t the only loser from the Big Two in Moyle; the DUP managed to lose out to both the UUP and TUV.