One good rule of thumb in politics is never, never lose your rag with a television interviewer: unless, that is, you have the chutzpah (Paisley), or the brass neck (Adams) to get away with it. All our politicians have done it. So it’s probably no surprise that last night, Peter Robinson seemed to lose his temper several times under a combative flurry of questions from Noel Thompson on Hearts and Minds concerning the continuing deadlock over the devolution of policing and justice.
Yet it’s also clear from this hastily assembled transcript, why he might be feeling testy with a mainstream media that has, thus far, rarely bothered to scratch beneath the surface of a major issue that’s slowly strangling government in Northern Ireland:
Robinson: We have a moral duty, a legal duty and a political duty to do the work that we pledged to do. That is what we should be doing now.
Thompson: You also have a duty to agree an agenda for Executive meetings. You and Martin McGuinness are the co chairs of the Executive Committee. It is your responsibility in the statue to agree an agenda. It’s not enough for you to say come along and talk about whatever you want to talk about. It hs to be agreed before the meeting begins.
Robinson: Well you mustn’t have been following the discussion on this issue. An Executive takes place on the basis of papers that are presented to the Office of First and Deputy First Ministers from Ministers out in each of the Departments. There are almost thirty Ministerial papers that I have cleared. I’m prepared to accept any of those on the agenda. Martin McGuinness himself has cleared a dozen of those papers, and I have said “We have both agreed on these twelve papers, lets have them on the agenda, but he refuses to do that. On that basis I said well look, let’s have an open agenda. I said let even just deal with the one big issue that facing our community, the financial crisis let have that one the agenda, they refuse that as well. Don’t blame me if you want to take it out, and you’re entitled to take it out on politicians, but take it out on the wrong ones.
Thompson: But the problem is not what you will agree to talk to them about but what you won’t agree to talk about. It’s not enough for you say come along and well talk about what you want to talk about. You should be both be going in with papers, position papers, negotiation positions to thrash this out once and for all. But that’s just not happening.
Robinson: What issue do you want me to thrash out at the Executive?
Thompson: Devolution of Policing and Justice.
Robinson: That’s not a Executive matter, it’s a political matter! It’s not a function of the Executive. It hasn’t been devolved, therefore the Executive doesn’t have any say in it.
Thompson: Ah, but you have to agree to the devolution of it.
Robinson: Not at the Executive we don’t.
Thompson: Well where are you going to agree to it then.
Robinson: Hold on a second. Try and do it within the law as the law stands. It is not an Executive matter. It is not an issue to be discussed by the Executive. It is a matter to be discussed between the parties.
Thompson: Okay, so when are you going to do that?
Robinson: I’ve been doing it for months now and indeed making progress on it for months now. I haven’t been reluctant to deal with any of the outstanding issues. Not just the one that happens to be of interest to Sinn Fein, but there happen to be issues that are of interest to the Unionist people as a whole.
Thompson: This is the crucial one; would you agree that?
Robinson: No, I don’t agree this.
Thompson: In terms of moving everything forward, this is what is stopping it.
Robinson: Right, if I say I am doing nothing until we resolve one of the issues on my agenda, does that become the crucial one? It is vital that we resolve all the issues that are outstanding, not just the one that Sinn Fein decides should be taken before all others. If we allow that to happen then we will have threats every day of existence of the Executive and the Assembly.
Thompson: But it is the one you are putting to the bottom of the list. It is not something that is in your gift. It is part of the St Andrews Agreement.
Robinson: What is part of the St Andrews Agreement?
Thompson: The devolution of Policing and Justice.
Robinson:: And so are all the other issues that I’ve mentioned. All of these issues have to be dealt with and I want to deal with them. It doesn’t mean that one has to be taken out of sinc with the others. It doesn’t mean that one has to take a greater priority than all the others. But I have said publicly that I want to see the devolution of policing and justice, but they must be devolved in the right manner, in the right way. with the right structures and with the right people who can get the confidence of the community in charge of them.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty