Fair_deals recent comment on a blog about message discipline having been poor recently set me thinking about the DUP, the recent outbursts of some of its leaders and whether or not this represents a slippage of Robinsons apparent previous iron control of that party. Now before Dundella Avenues blog team launch into me: I do not think Robinson is either Stalin or Mr. Bean. Actually I think he is handling the current situation rather well and is more of a Nikita Khrushchev (I mean that as a compliment, though the analogy is not great).Historically DUP members frequently came out with comments which many outside their support base found bizarre. In recent years (and apparently largely due to Robinson) the DUP has, however, become vastly more professional in terms of its media profile. As such the recent rash of somewhat odd public comments: Iriss forays into the relationships between church and state and between consenting adults, Mervyn Storeys views on the teaching of biology and Paisley juniors latest remarks on policing all seem surprising considering Robinsons previous ultra tight control. Indeed in the period immediately surrounding Dr. Paisleys departure as First Minister people were seriously talking about the inevitability of practicing Roman Catholics joining the DUP. At the moment that looks some way off.
Does the above represent a Gordon Brown like transformation from the utterly powerful deputy to a bumbling, ineffectual and indecisive leader?
I would suggest that it does not. Robinson coming as he does from a more secular strand of unionism (despite his personal religiousness) and being a member of neither the Free Presbyterian Church nor the Orange Order might have been vulnerable to accusations of trying to move the party too far away from its original support base. In addition the fact that he (Robinson) was intimately involved in the St. Andrews Agreement and subsequently has been accused of involvement in the deposition of Dr. Paisley might all be storing up trouble for him. Although many of the neo-DUP members (the previously non aligned and the ex-UUP brigade) may be very supportive of him, it is possible that all the above would create suspicion from the traditional grassroots of the party.
As such allowing the hardliners and backwoodsmen a little time to say what they want and maybe even being a little more liberal with them than he was when deputy leader and enforcer in chief might well be a very good idea. Clearly the Iris issue is a bit embarrassing but it looks as if she has sated her desire to say mad things and will go back to being a relatively competent chair of the health committee; better that than her incompetent attempts to become a theologian or political theorist.
Knifing Paisley junior at this time would also be a bad idea. The man himself is making a pretty good job of destroying his own political career without any outside help. In addition if Robinson did move against him it might provoke Paisley senior to cause trouble. Whilst clearly Dr. Paisley is no longer leader and his star has waned considerably, a direct attack from that quarter must be one of the few internal threats Robinson still fears.
By letting the current set of more hardline comments come out without complaint Robinson gains a number of things. He looks like a reasonable and consensual leader, a contrast from how he at times appeared as deputy leader. It is always a good thing for a leader to at least start appearing consensual and inclusive. Secondly the assorted madder comments may well make many in the party (even the saner fundamentalists) ask for a tightening up of message discipline. Just because people are fundamentalists does not mean that they cannot see how they are perceived by the outside world and the potential problems with, for example, a politician proposing ending the teaching of evolution in schools. Fundamentalists are no fonder of being laughed at unnecessarily than anyone else. Thirdly allowing a bit of good old fashioned ranting might well harm the TUV. Allister, the leading barrister, can hardly trump Paisley juniors ideas on shooting people on sight and whilst it will damage Paisley junior in most quarters amongst some hardline DUP elements who might veer TUV-wards it might help.
The next advantage Robinson gains is that if he is forced to or indeed decides to agree to a compromise on the devolution of policing and justice he has ensured that the party has not felt that it has been dragooned in the more liberal direction for a number of months. Accepting P&J might be a significant problem for Robinson if it involves significant compromises in the current DUP position. To have allowed a lot of hardline comment beforehand might well make P&J easier to sell if that becomes necessary or desirable.
One could of course argue the contrary to all this: that Robinson should have stamped his authority even more tightly on the party and that that would have strengthened his position. I would, however, suggest that the tighter he would have grasped control the more sand would have slipped through his fingers. I have frequently questioned Robinsons strategic vision but at least in regards to his party after the mistakes over Dromore I do think he has played his hand well. Whether or not he can continue to hold the line and defeat SF over P&J devolution, an Irish language act and the Maze, I am unsure.
As before I truly wish Robinson well in his endeavours: I know the DUPers here do not believe this but I hope he beats SF just as I hope Foster (or the UUP) win in Enniskillen.
So to come back to the start: Peter Robinson is to my mind not following Gordon Brown and turning from Stalin to Mr. Bean. Instead I think like Nikita Khrushchev he is managing to present an apparently more consensual face to the DUP whist continuing to remain very firmly in control.