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