The Robinson Allister spat in the context of the Hass talks

Last week’s spat between Peter Robinson and Jim Allister has been analysed in some detail. One of the best contributions has been by Sam McBride pointing to how it demonstrates the difference that it makes allowing ministers to be questioned without knowing the questions in advance. Prior to that as McBride says: “For years, question time at Stormont has been a fairly turgid affair, with questions submitted weeks in advance so that civil servants could draft vast replies for ministers to read.”

It was unfortunate for Peter Robinson that Jim Allister would happen to be the first one to be chosen to ask him a question but it was almost inevitable that Jim Allister would perform well in the new environment. A question and answer session with Allister asking the questions is very close to a court of law and of course Allister was a leading QC. As such for Jim Allister to get the better of Peter Robinson was fairly likely.

In the News Letter McBride further suggests that “At Westminster and most other legislatures, the performance of the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s Questions is seen as a key barometer of the leader’s performance.” Here I am not quite so sure. Latterly David Cameron’s ability to defeat Ed Milliband most of the time (though not by any means all the time) may be relevant and Ian Duncan Smith’s failure against Tony Blair certainly did him harm. However, Blair was repeatedly bested by William Hague, without that helping Hague or the Tories. That parallel is likely to be more relevant with Allister and Robinson and Allister’s superiority in debate is unlikely to destroy the DUP or Robinson’s leadership of it.

One problem for the DUP and Robinson is, however, that they, especially their Stormont team, will have long been fond watchers of Prime Minister’s Question Time. For them frequent victories at First Minister’s Questions over their unionist nemesis Allister would be great, just as defeat would be galling. Furthermore Robinson, despite his recent post Irisgate much more emollient persona, does not seem to like being defeated in anything. Whilst Robinson may now be able to be calm and accept ebb and flow of conversation as an interview style, that does not extend to the fundamentally gladiatorial style of the new assembly questions, especially not against the man he personally brought back into politics: Jim Allister.

In that context and, seeing he was being beaten by Allister, Robinson seems to have decided to fire back with a more serious put down of Allister. That would have the benefit of exposing Allister, the great opponent of Republicans, as a hypocrite. It is likely that whoever had discovered these “facts” about Allister would have thought that they might damage Allister in front of some of his most hardline supporters and “expose him as a liberal.”

In reality of course this strategy was a disaster: almost certainly the consequence of Robinson having the “facts” ready in a disorganized fashion in his mind and blurting them out before they had been going to be revealed. In so doing we discovered that the “facts” were nothing of the sort and every accusation Robinson made against Allister was simply factually incorrect. Even more damaging it made Robinson look like he was denouncing Protestants selling land to Catholics. This may well be an unspoken truth to some Prods (and likewise the other way round to some Catholics) but is not something people will publicly admit. As one of my friends put it: It sounded like Robinsons was saying “don’t do business with Taigs.” The fact that Robinson did not mean that is irrelevant. He was in a hole and he kept digging. That exchange has damaged him especially in any outreach to Catholic Unionist Unicorns: much more so than vetoing the shrine will have done.

The damage is, however, far from irrevocable: even with any unicorns who may still exist (if they ever did). Robinson simply has to go back to doing what he was doing successfully a few months ago: being Prime Minister of Northern Ireland in all but name. The flag protests may have done him damage in terms of cross community appeal and this latest episode will have been further damage. However, the simple fact is that he is much more convincing as a cross community person than Martin McGuinness. For anyone who doubts that whataboutery is the relevant response as one’s personal past and hinterland demonstrates one’s credibility in cross community outreach. In that regard Robinson may well have the grave embarrassment of the likes of Clontibret. Martin McGuinness on the other hand has the blood of Claudy, Joanne Mathers and almost countless others, if by chance none personally on his hands, then its congealing memory sticking cloyingly round his feet.

Mention of McGuinness bring us back to the people who are the main beneficiaries in this intra unionist debacle. Sinn Fein actually had most to fear from the new assembly questions regime. When they supported the change to the nature of assembly questions the DUP no doubt anticipated being able to take on and routinely defeat Sinn Fein ministers. A number of Sinn Fein ministers have already been exposed as, by turns: incompetent, nepotistical and sectarian. The ability to attack Sinn Fein’s ministers must surely have been an opportunity many in the DUP were waiting for with baited breath prior to last week’s events.

Robinson’s failure has instead handed a PR victory to Sinn Fein. SF had been in trouble in some ways. I have suggested previously that the spectacularly inappropriate rerouting by Sinn Fein of the Gabally parade to Castlederg was a sign, not of strength, but of weakness; along with Gerry Kelly’s summer of criminality reminiscence.

In the context of Sinn Fein’s almost complete failure to advance their “Liberation by 2016” nonsense and what at times looked like their tacit acceptance of partition into the medium to long term, Sinn Fein needed something to help them. Sinn Fein was always much, much better at endless negotiation rather than government. That was demonstrated on the last occasion they brought power sharing to a standstill and extracted from the DUP the devolution of policing and justice. Tom Elliott has already perceptively observed that Sinn Fein is likely to try to create a “hot house” environment in order to gain as much as possible. In this context Robinson’s mistake was particularly serious and has helped Gerry Kelly in his claims that “Stormont is in Crisis” which Sinn Fein will no doubt use to try to “hot house” the Haas talks.

As I said above, however, this episode is not a vast disaster. It has put Robinson onto the back foot. He would be wise now to apologise formally to Jim Allister and then simply proceed as before. This spat will likely be forgotten shortly. A week is a long time in politics and this incoming week Jim gets to ask a question of McGuinness.

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  • Zig70

    Robbo’s cross community appeal, lol. The post should have a ‘btw, I’ve no notion what nationalists think’ get out clause at the bottom. The funny thing is nats will think SF has wiped the floor with the dup in questions and the dup are incompetent and sectarian. Ignorance is bliss.

  • BluesJazz

    I wonder if Martin McGuinness thinks the sectarian murderer(s) of Joanne Mathers were ‘traitors to Ireland’? Including the “officer commanding” the brave volunteers.

    Ignorance (or willful forgetfulness) is indeed bliss.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Turgon,

    An interesting article and perspective.

    There was a Belfast Telegraph poll done a few years back that dealt with the issue of Martin McGuinness’ credibility among Protestants and I don’t think it is quite as negative as you suggest. It would, of course, be a crass mistake to describe him as popular with Protestants, but then it would be equally mistaken to say that Robinson is popular with RCs.

    For nationalist voters, as well as moderates in the centre, Robinson has been a let down. In recent years I have transferred to the DUP in elections but I cannot do so any longer. My problem began at the time of the Clifton St matter and was confirmed when I saw the DUP’s deliberate escalation of the flags issue. I have my opinions about the peace centre at the Maze but I do not think by itself it would have swayed my perspective.

    The DUP running for the comfort, safety and familiar ground by restricting its appeal to fruitcake unionism (concerning flags and marchers) is what is doing long-term and ongoing damage to their ability to attract transfers from nationalism and from the centre.

    On the final note, you say that Robinson handed a victory to Sinn Féin. Wouldn’t the credit for that be better attributed to Allister ? SF benefit when unionists are divided and attacking each other. SF get their votes from nationalists who believe that unionists don’t want to share power with Catholics; unionism’s division over powersharing, personified by Allister, is what reinforces this. The history, of course, is that unionist politicians are more interested in scrambling over each other to get to the top than they are about countering whatever threat is imposed by SF. If unionists endorsed powersharing with constitutional nationalists in 1974 there would be no Sinn Féin.

  • Neil

    Spot on CS. The TUV’s primary target is the DUP, the DUP’s primary is the UUs (because they’re bigger than the TUV for now). The PUP are trying to attract the protest vote from the DUP thanks to the idiotic leaflet drop. The Shinners have little to fear from questions from the intellectual heavyweights of the DUP, possibly more to fear from Allister (but it’s going to be nothing original – a Paisly Snr circa ’85 tribute band is all the TUV offer as far as questions are concerned). But it all comes back to the fact that Unionist parties always view another Unionist party as their target.

  • BluesJazz

    CS
    “the issue of Martin McGuinness’ credibility among Protestants and I don’t think it is quite as negative as you suggest”

    So the murder of Joanne Mathers is/was “not quite as negative” as you think?

    Think again.

  • Mc Slaggart

    BluesJazz

    “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.”
    Joseph Stalin

    Do you know what some military experts say that all the dead during the conflict did not have any real impact in the British government.

    The blowing up of the city of London had a major impact on their thought process.

  • Seamuscamp

    Turgon

    “A week is a long time in politics”
    Is it really? In NI? Why the drinking, urinating, drum banging, fifing and marching on July 12? Why the Covenant commemoration? Why the pending ’16 celebrations? The NI politicians’ attitude to time is Biblical – “But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”

  • David Crookes

    “The ADUP and the ATUV were still trying to score points against each other as their whole world disappeared beneath the waves.”

    [Secret History of Atlantis, book 20, chapter 20.]

  • BluesJazz

    McSlaggart
    Yeah, aware of the quote, and boy do I think Paisley & co have a lot to answer for
    But in the specific sectarian murder of Joanne Mathers..
    Martin McGuinness is a prime suspect.
    HMG will cover him, of course, but the local populace know the score. As do you by your inference.
    Your Stalinist lack of empathy suggests that Joanne’s murder was a bit of a damp squib, when killing Asian shopkeepers in London was spot on.

  • Rory Carr

    The sheer awfulness of Blues Jazz‘s last paragraph above is truly cringeworthy. “…when killing Asian shopkeepers in London was spot on.. Now”when” exactly was that ? we might well ask. As for a “Stalinist lack of empathy… suggesting anything – well, I give up. But at least we are able to unscramble from all that mess of words that Blues Jazz would have us equate racist attacks on Asian shopkeepers with the murder of census taker, Joanne Mathers.

    The murder of Joanne Mathers was truly appalling. It was appalling on so many levels – that she was young, that she was a defenceless female and that it was all so terribly pointless. An organised boycott of the census would have had so much more of a political impact.

    Which brings me to my point – Joanne Mathers was murdered, purely and simply, because she was engaged in collecting census forms, nothing more, nothing less. Young men fired deadly bullets into the unprotected flesh of that poor, helpless young woman not because she was young or because she was a woman and defenceless in a largely no-go area (although that must have helped make her an attractive target). Nor was she killed because of her religion which would have been unknown to her killers – unless Blues Jazz is suggesting that no Catholics would have been employed as census workers by the Stormont administration.

    No, Joanne Mather’s murder was not ageist, or sexist – her age and her sex ought to have been as a shield of protection but was not – but nor was it an act of religious sectarianism and to maintain that it was is to deny Joanne Mathers her courage as a census worker in an area so volatile as Derry in that time.

    Let us please leave the horror and cowardly nature of her slaughter stand as it was without attempting to twist it into what it was not for nakedly sectarian purposes.

  • The blowing up of the city of London had a major impact on their thought process. …. Mc Slaggart 29 September 2013 at 11:10 pm

    And silent stealthy deadly anonymous and autonomous attacks on the fiat money system are that which are the stuff of nightmares for those who would purport to be into defence in the cyber field ….. which is a very lucrative business area with all manner of opportunities and vulnerabilities to exploit and harden against defeat with unparalleled success, but it is not at all suitable for all. Indeed, it may very well be only the exclusive executive domain of a very intelligent few.

    One wonders if there be any of noteworthy skills in, or of certain titanic interest to the new spooky fun factory machinery whirring away and wearing itself out Holywood loughside in Palace Barracks?

    Surely the North here has enough great white elephants akin to Stormont without the world and his dog discovering another brand spanking new one one up and running around like a headless chicken while the fox feasts on treasured spoils.

    When are those sad folk gonna grow up and wise up and realise that the bad past is gone and is best completely forgotten rather than be continually dragging it into the future as a surreal dead corpse to be feasted upon and/or dissected in the present.

  • Morpheus

    Sod the Haass talks -what about the innocent family who bought the land? The First Minister – the First Minister of everyone in Northern Ireland – has more or less put a target on this family by branding them as Republicans with absolutely nothing more to back it up than the fact that they are Catholics. In 2013 it should not need to be explained to the person who holds the highest office in the land that the terms ‘Catholic’ and ‘Republican’ are not interchangeable.

    I would sue the ass off him

  • Framer

    The Asian shopkeepers referred to were killed by the IRA in the London Docklands bomb. Their murder was only subjectively racist as they were collateral damage.
    Joanne Mathers was targeted in a sectarian attack by the same people who a census later were insisting Catholics fill their forms in.

  • FDM

    @Framer

    The post is about Peter Robinson trying to out-sectarian Jim Allister. For future reference this is how you spell

    w h a t a b o u t

    I am with Morpheus on this one. The family concerned should sue Robinson. It really was gutter sectarian politics. It was revealing in understanding just how much pressure Robbo is under that he let the veil slip so visibly. Notably Turgon seems to believe that Jim Allister is the only person worthy of an apology. Says a lot.

    @Turgon
    “A number of Sinn Fein ministers have already been exposed as, by turns: incompetent, nepotistical and sectarian.” Given that DUP are in the same room you can’t have written that statement with a straight face. The only difficulty there is deciding which DUP debacle to start with.

    “The flag protests may have done him damage in terms of cross community appeal “. The comedy keeps on coming. “Maybe” do you think?

    “the simple fact is that he is much more convincing as a cross community person than Martin McGuinness.” Comedy gold. The popularity polls don’t seem to bear that statement out Turgon. Many admit, even in the deep recesses of the PUL community, that Marty is the most impressive leader we have. You don’t have to love everyone that you work with, or for, or indeed those that work for you. It starts at competence and Marty outreaches the rest by a country field in Tyrone.

    The wider MMcG points seem to be he has IRA [defunct for 18 years] credentials and therefore is crippled forever as a politician. Elections both in the six and twenty-six, for instance the Irish presidential election performance, does not seem to bear that out. Whereas Peter was obviously central to the setting up of Ulster Resistance. An organisation that imported guns leading to the deaths of hundreds of Catholics here. Peter also made a statement on camera that he was an on street member of the precursor organisation to the UDA. Moreover Peter’s party and their representatives have been hand in glove with extreme loyalist groups who are CURRENTLY involved in murder and large scale violence. Note Nigel Dodds attendance at UVF day yesterday. Note the same, Redsky McCausland and Ruth all happy to walk in processions under the wider Catholic killing Brian Robinson Memorial banners. The least of Peter’s extremist actions was Clonibret compared to those other albatrosses around his neck.

  • FDM

    Some bones on MMcG v Robbo cross-community credibility stakes.

    http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/politics/poll-sinn-feins-martin-mcguinness-is-northern-irelands-top-minister-28506628.html

    Robbo posted a 0% [zero] rating amongst Catholics polled. Whereas MMcG pulled in 11% of those of the protestant faiths.

    A zero in a data set is a strong result.

    Underlines the importance of making statements and being able to support them in some quantitative or qualitative way.

  • between the bridges

    Turgon have I missed the ‘in the context of the Hass talks’ bit? re Robbenson/McGuness popularity with themuns i’d say it’s on a par. However if SF ever actually make the break from PIRA they will offer more to PUL ‘working class’ than the DUP.

  • Barry the Blender

    The wider MMcG points seem to be he has IRA [defunct for 18 years] credentials and therefore is crippled forever as a politician. Elections both in the six and twenty-six, for instance the Irish presidential election performance, does not seem to bear that out. Whereas Peter was obviously central to the setting up of Ulster Resistance. An organisation that imported guns leading to the deaths of hundreds of Catholics here.

    FDM just what is your point here?

    Is being in a paramilitary OK for republicans and bad for prods, or just bad fullstop?

  • Obelisk

    “However, the simple fact is that he is much more convincing as a cross community person than Martin McGuinness”

    No, it is not a fact, it is an opinion. And a mainfestly ill-formed one that. The only people who can judge whether Peter is a better ‘cross-community person’ would be northern nationalists. Last time I checked, you don’t fit into that category.

    It’s akin to Boris Johnson saying that ‘of course Margaret Thatcher was a better communicator than Neil Kinnock’. His sympathies and background warp his answer.

    Of course, we would then face a similar issue to yourself in that we would be unable to judge MMcG’s outreach as we aren’t the intended audience.

    But you shouldn’t presume to speak for us.You’ve a poor track record of reading Nationalist minds or intent and should stick to where you are genuinely illuminating and insightful, intra-unionist bickering and thought processes.

  • Obelisk

    (My apologies, it seems I pressed the enter key too soon and have broken my response into two posts).

    As for your diatribes against Sinn Fein Ministers, will you spare a thought for the whiter than white Unionist ministers who may have something to fear?

    The bigoted Edwin Pootrs pursuing any anti-gay legislation he can, up to and including the UK supreme court, spending tens of thousands of pounds to be told at the end (as he will) that it’s rank discrimination is surely the most egregious example.

  • Henry94

    The damage is, however, far from irrevocable: even with any unicorns who may still exist (if they ever did). Robinson simply has to go back to doing what he was doing successfully a few months ago: being Prime Minister of Northern Ireland in all but name.

    He really has to apologise too. he got it badly wrong about both Jim Allister and the family concerned, Common decency demands he withdraw and say sorry.

  • FDM

    Barry the Blender 30 September 2013 at 3:20 pm

    “FDM just what is your point here?”

    “Is being in a paramilitary OK for republicans and bad for prods, or just bad fullstop?”

    In our context here being associated with paramilitaries is a vote loser, when trying to pick up votes from “the other side”. PIRA have been defunct in fighting a war against crown forces for nearly two decades. Hence MMcG’s association with all of that is nearly two decades old [way older if you believe him]. Robbo and his party members have previous also delving into the past. However he and his party is CURRENTLY cavorting/flirting with armed illegal paramilitary organisation(s). They share events, hence they share platforms with these people. They refuse to condemn their actions, they undermine the rule of law. This is what differentiates MMcG from Peter and the DUP. The DUP are still fighting the war as far as I am concerned. They always were hand in glove with loyalist paramilitaries, the problem is they still are with active loyalist paramilitaries. PIRA are history and so the ongoing damage to people like MMcG, GA, GK etc… is diminished in each passing year from their quarter. Hence they become more acceptable. Grass is growing over the PIRA battlefields. However we are still tripping over loyalist paramilitary bodies. East Belfast THIS week for want of a bit of bad luck. Before you say “dissidents-this-that”. Thats not SF and since MMcG and others are under sentence of death from such quarters you can’t really counter with that argument since the DFM will give them no cover whatsoever, just the opposite in fact.

    The DUP/UUP are just unionist cold-warriors. Rusty battle-wagons trundling on waging their war because thats what they were developed to do. They can’t do anything else.

  • between the bridges

    FDM, so SF should distance themselves from PIRA, is that because what PIRA did was wrong or because the dissident IRA doing as PIRA did do is wrong…

  • SeaanUiNeill

    FDM, enjoyed the posting but might add a little something to “The DUP/UUP are just unionist cold-warriors. Rusty battle-wagons trundling on waging their war because thats what they were developed to do.”

    They were also seemingly developed to offer an open ear to the lobby of developers whom even the old UUP would not listen to. DUP — “Developers Unionist Party.”

    And Henry 94, “Common decency demands he withdraw and say sorry.” Peter Robinson — No case to answer.

  • Mc Slaggart

    BluesJazz

    Sadly the dead do not count. An IRA who murdered a policeman can become a Hero and their is nothing anyone can do about it.

  • sean treacy

    Jim didn’t seem to emerge on top in todays tussle with mcguinness.Martin swatted his morally superior attempt at a question with statesman like applomb before delivering the coup de gras with a humdinger about a certain politico standing grinning beside known uvf men at Twadell

  • Comrade Stalin

    BlueJazz,

    I think using the victimhood of other people to score political points is rather shameful.

    I don’t think political unionism cares about the victims of IRA murders. It’s just a convenient figleaf to cover up the fact that they don’t share power with nationalists. They didn’t want to share power with nationalists before the PIRA were on the scene; and they’re still resisting it now that the PIRA have left the scene.

    The issues surrounding victims and justice need to be sorted out, but it simply isn’t going to happen by excluding people from power. And it’s cheap to suggest that anyone who wants to see political progress, and who can see when some actors in the conflict are making genuine efforts to implement it, is trying to exclude victims from consideration.

  • Gopher

    Not that I’m a fan of political unionism past or present but they were actually elected so I would suggest that something runs a bit deeper than flippant comments or oblique narratives. Understanding why such limited politicians get elected might go someway to improving things. Just a thought just a little objective thought in emotional little Ireland.

  • @Turgon,

    So Turgon, it seems that you basically agree with my take last week on Robinson’s outburst.

  • cynic2

    Its not a disaster at all as nothing has changed or will change. They both hate each other and both see political advantage in continuing this shameful ‘war by another means’approach that just buggers up life for everyone.

    Next time around we should all just write NO on the ballots – none of them is worth the ink in the X

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you, Cynic2, for saying what I’ve been saying for years. While we vote people into power to represent us, they seem to believe that every stupid idea running through their heads has been mandated by our votes. Hence Poots and the blood business.

    Without some way of actually turning our very nineteenth century political system into a genuine and more direct system of representation, in the manner of the Swiss referenda, the representatives become more and more intoxicated on their discovery of power, like young adolesents at an all night party. Managing the State is a very big thing to be put into a very small imagination. Something is going to tear open somewhere. So watch for the sawdust on DUP shoulders……