North and south reset their political clocks

It may be mid June before Peter Robinson is safely ensconced in the Office of the First Minister. Brian Cowen will have his feet firmly under the table by then. But despite some speculation to the contrary, and personalities that seem remarkably divergent in character – as the Independent puts it – “Robinson (59) – koi fish collector and golfer; and Cowen (48) – pub singer and Offaly GAA supporter” – the most important convergences between the two men are more ‘socio’ rather than ‘big p’ political. Robinson has honed a party machine whose small(er) government values were written all over the Programme for Government. If Sinn Fein’s Mitchell McLaughlin once hankered for the centrally planned economy of Cuba, he seems happy enough to acquiesce in the need for government efficiencies that Robinson hopes to enforce through the Performance and Efficiency Delivery Unit (PEDU).

As Vincent Browne noted in the Sunday Business Post, Brian Cowen laid out his priorities as a future Taoiseach last November in a speech at the Royal Irish Academy. His comments on the need for continued public sector reform chimes directly with Robinson’s priorities in Northern Ireland:

Public sector productivity will also need to be a priority for Ireland over the next decade. This will impact on the cost and quality of providing services and will also impacts on the internationally traded sector. A rapid growth in productivity in the public sector will enable Ireland to secure better services and to ensure that costs are not imposed directly or indirectly on the traded sector.

Cowen also seems to be prepared to ante up for Northern Ireland, in ways that are not always going to make him popular in the Republic. Last year’s near hysterical attack on Aer Lingus for shifting the ir hub to Belfast demonstrates the extent which all Irish politics are essentially local. Yesterday’s news, or instance, could be good for Northern Ireland, but in Dublin it has had a chillier reception. Cowen, with family roots in South Armagh, seems committed to closer ties with Northern Ireland.

As for Robinson, he probably faces the steeper challenge of the two men. He has a strong and largely deserved reputation for being a hugely well organised and competent administrator. He and his team worked right thorugh the summer recess to pull off a budget which despite the fact it faced much potential opposition from within the Executive, weathered the storm to come home virtually unopposed. But he faces a massive job in transforming the public face of unionism in Northern Ireland, turning it’s gaze outwards with some confidence. As Maurice Hayes puts it:

There are difficult issues to be faced, there is an absolute need to make the thing work, to produce results in social and economic programmes, in relation to policing, to the Irish language and to the Human Rights Act and to bring the community together.

Peter Robinson has the ability, the intellect and the drive to encompass the first. The challenge now for him is to find the empathy for nationalism required for the second and the subtlety and flexibility needed for the third.

Robinson and Cowen are an unlikely couple. Neither will want to make their relationship overt or personal. But there is considerable potential for both of them to do the other a lot of good.

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  • pfhl

    A pub singer from with roots in south armagh. I wonder does he ever sing the fighting men from crossmaglen.

  • hongo is bongo

    Interesting personal traits for the Indy to hone in on, dare I say it creates the impression of one man living up to a rancorous and pleasing ethnic stereotype and the other being overly comfortable in a garden centre ?

    The relationship will be, I think, that of two snakes – when there is an agreed common endeavour, they will be virtual synchronised, when there is not…….

  • Rory

    “… the most important convergences between the two men are more ‘socio’ rather than ‘big p’ political.”

    I shouldn’t worry, Mick, the same could have been said of Stalin and FDR but they purportedly got on like a house on fire at Yalta.

  • percy

    They are both capricorns, however in chinese astrology
    Robinson is born in the year of The Rat, and Cowen : The Boar

  • NP

    “Robinson (59) – koi fish collector and golfer”

    Always knew there was something fishy about the man !

  • Steve

    NP the golfing I can understand but its the over priced goldfish that has me wondering too

  • Mick Fealty

    The only thing that worries me Rory is that the one intelligent comment on this thread comes from someone called Hongo is Bongo.

  • Rory

    I shouldn’t apply too much trust in intelligence either, Mick, its limitations tend to be tested to rigour as the field of operation expands.

    At least that was (or would have been) Custer’s reply to the critics of his command at Little Big Horn.

  • RepublicanStones

    ‘which all Irish politics are essentially local.’

    or as some up north might say…..

    ‘which all Irish politics are essentially yokel.’

    Big Lips and Property Pete…..sounds like a comic strip. I think Pete can relax as regards an invite to GAA headquaters though, can’t see Awfully gettin too far this year.