Peter Robinson and Robert Frost

I see that Peter Robinson has been anointed as DUP leader. Robinson has been seen as the obvious choice for leader since Dr. Paisley announced his decision to step down; indeed one could argue that apart from occassional suggestions about Dodds (or even for a time Jim Allister), Robinson has been the likely successor for a very long time now.This is not the time to go over Robinson’s career from the current highs as Finance Minister to the low of liberator? of Clontibret. Whilst Robinson may not be a strategic visionary, nor possibly a towering intellectual (though that is probably unfair prejudice) he is and has always been a supreme tactician (the problems I have previously highlighted over Allister and Dromore notwithstanding).

Where Robinson will take the executive and his party now is very interesting and indeed I suggest the future is possibly more uncertain than it seems.

To turn to the first of Robert Frost’s poems: “Mending wall”. In this one line is “Good fences make good neighbours”. In terms of the executive I suspect this to be very much the case. I have no doubt the “Chuckle Brothers” type routine will never be seen again. Whilst Robinson may try to avoid the pained look on Trimble’s face when he had to appear with Mallon; I suspect he will practice studied coldness and even a little contempt with McGuiness. He will ensure the wall is well maintained; he will be quite happy to be the “old-stone savage armed” of Frost’s poem. Robinson is a pragmatist and seems to have a good grasp of committees and the like. As such I suspect this coldness will not prevent him from having a reasonable relationship with SF ministers in terms of getting things done. There may be absolutely no love or friendship but I suspect Robinson will get on with the job in hand. Good fences may make at least tolerable neighbours.

The second Frost poem which comes to mind is “The Road Not Taken”. In this case the question is which road should the DUP under Robinson take with respect to unionism.

For essentially the first time since its inception in 1971 the DUP, now unionism’s dominant party, are beset within unionism from both left and right, albeit the degree danger they face from their two opponents is difficult to assess.

Robinson could move to the left and attempt to hoover up the remaining UUP support. Indeed Robinson did relatively recently appear to put out feelers regarding possibly increased unity with the UUP. Although he was rebuffed by Empey and the UUP have felt buoyed (in error in my view) by Dromore; the fact remains that having gained so much of the UUP vote in the recent past Robinson may feel he can gain more. There are some UUP voters and members who would never vote for or join the DUP. Robinson may, however, feel that with Paisley gone he might make further gains of UUP support and possibly even membership once the fundamentalist bogey person of Paisley has gone. The UUP is rather like a dying star and as such will presumably become a small dense object, not disappearing but remaining pretty irrelevant (I doubt it is big enough to become a black hole but I will leave Pete Baker to the astronomy analogies). As such, I suspect further gradual loss of support for the UUP. In addition I suspect the fear of a Sinn Fein first minister might make some UUP voters who might consider moving to Alliance, go to the DUP instead.

This leftward drift (not shift) may also make more sense as Robinson has always been on the liberal pragmatic wing of the DUP (all things being relative) and is seen by many as having helped ease / push Paisley into the current deal. The size of the UUP constituency is also pretty definable.

The other road, the one he may wish to take but cannot may be to move to the right and cut off Jim Allister and the TUV. No one knows the size of the TUV constituency (I am unsure, and I am in the party). What Dromore seems to show us (but remember it is only a council by election) is that this constituency is not tiny. It may also grow now that Paisley has gone. Some DUP supporters, I suspect, are utterly loyal to Paisley and so would support him in spite of his recent volte face. However, with Robinson (never entirely trusted in some circles) in charge, the accusation of sell out may stick more easily. In addition any further concessions or joint initiatives by the DUP along with SF may be seen as a sell out that Paisley would never have accepted. Appointing Dodds as deputy was clearly practically inevitable but is also quite a good sop to the right wing. Other measures are easy and already in train (such as not chuckling); in addition promoting other know fundamentalist hardliners might well help (can I plug Nelson McCausland without that destroying his career?) The fear of a SF first minister might also play with the hardliners but possibly not as much as with the UUP types. Some TUVists might think that a SF first minister would result in the collapse of the executive and as such almost view it as a good thing. On the other hand, I suspect the TUV would be relatively unlikely to stand in Westminster seats where that might result in nationalist gains.

I suspect that a move to the right would be welcomed by many DUP members (and supporters). However, Robinson may calculate that stopping chuckling and at the same time remaining static or even easing to the left will allow him to achieve what Robert Frost failed; that is travel both roads. I suspect in the short term such a tactic will work. I would, however, maintain that this is a short term tactic and not a viable long term strategy. In the long term if Robinson were to think this was the way to square his circle, I think he would be incorrect. We will, however, have to wait and see.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.