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.