Hearts and Minds: “That’s not a Executive matter, it’s a political matter!”

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.

The subject then veers off onto the findings of a highly suspect poll from the NIO. You can pick up part 2 here.

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  • Greenflag

    ‘“That’s not a Executive matter, it’s a political matter!”’

    So it’s not an ecumenical matter either then ?

    Father Jack Hackett will be disappointed but not surprised 😉

    Enough of the Robinson /McGuinness farce – Just close the place down permanently or at least for a generation until the ‘slow learners ‘ die off -for it’s abundantly clear they’ll never wise up even if they wanted to or could 🙁

  • Mick Fealty

    You want the Fionnuala thread (yet to come) for that line of argument GF… 😉

  • ggn

    Mick,

    In all fairness he was no were near as bad tempered as Jim Allister was on evening extra… hmm last week was it.

  • New Yorker

    I find Robinson’s statements in this interview both reasonable and resolute, as a First Minister should be. On the other hand, Noel Thompson was stuck on a single issue and badgering, poor form on the part of Noel. He needs to interview SF and ask them why they are so insistent on this issue: What is the real reason they want to influence P and J. If it is so important, tell us why – and not the spin about completion, etc, etc…

  • It was Sammy Mc Nally what done it

    This is disingenuous stuff – we have the exercising of a Unionist veto in defiance of the 2 main power brokers (The 2 governments) being challenged by a TV presenter and you attempt to obfusticate him being correctly challenged on this with – “mainstream media that has, thus far, rarely bothered to scratch beneath the surface of a major issue”. I think not. This subject has been flogged to death on Hearts and Minds and elsewhere. I think the subtext to your remarks is that Slugger has done it better – which is difficult to agree with, given Pete’s repitive uni-angled analyis has dominated the debate.

  • T>Ruth

    Repubicans seem to be stuck in a Fenian time warp-unable to move forward to the better future we all want.They have not changed at all. still stuck in the past.
    I watched Mark Thompson’s interview with the First Minister.
    Mark Thompson is a push over for the IRA and Sinn Fein-he wouldnt dare challenge Gerry Adams on issues like La Mon or the way in which Sinn Fein supported the indiscriminate murder of innocent civilians and army.police.and fire service personnel in the execution of their duties.

    Come on Noel -get some research done on the part played in the “war” by Gerry adams, Martin McGuiness and Gerry kelly and then interview Adams with the same edgy BBC enthusiasm.

    Peter Robinson was superb and in spite of your inability to conduct a proper interview he spelled out the realities that Sinn Fein must face.
    T.Ruth

    .

  • Mick Fealty

    No, Sammy don’t get me wrong. Noel absolutely sticks to his last. And the result of the confrontation is very very useful.

    I absolutely do not subscribe to that school of thought that journalists should not ask ‘stupid questions’. These are the questions after all that are lingering in the atmosphere/blogosphere. He asks them, and he gets very clear answers.

    In fact, the confrontation seems to further distil the clarity of Robinson’s answers, rather than dissipate it. And having interviewed the same gentleman twice, I understand what a fierce respondent he can be.

    And I’m afraid it’s not dead until it’s actually dead. Expect more of the same until the fat lady sings!!

  • Mick Fealty

    That last goes to you too, T>Ruth. I’m afraid we cross posted.

  • Carson’s Cat

    Sammy McNally
    “This subject has been flogged to death on Hearts and Minds and elsewhere.”

    Don’t mistake quality with quantity. Just because they’ve given endless hours to the subject doesn’t deflect from the fact that most of the analysis could be mistaken for that of a small child.

    To claim that the devolution of Policing & Justice should be discussed around the Executive table is some of the worst rubbish I’ve heard. Its all down to the fact that the media in NI (with the BBC being far the worst) believe that political analysis can be done by saying “well all politicians are crap aren’t they….

    And again from 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.”

    So apparently one person refuses to agree to any agenda for an Executive then its the fault of both people. He even then went on to somehow suggest that Robinson’s offer of a completely open agenda was some terrible thing.

    It was a terrible interview, not on the part of the interviewee, but the interviewer. Unfortunately more and more of them seem to believe they’re Paxman – and even he can’t carry off the old badgering interview as well as he clearly thinks he can.

    Mind you – if we’re talking politician tantrums under interviewing pressure nothing will ever beat the Trimble moment on Hearts & Minds where he went completely purple in the face and started banging the table and shouting at Thompson. That was pure television gold! Robinson might be angry, but he’s never out of control – that’s the key.

  • It was Sammy Mc Nally what done it

    Robbo’s irritation is commensurate with the political chickens coming home to roost – Unionism say NO does not go down well with anybody in Ireland or Britain except of course Unionists.

    It would be enjoyable to watch Noel turn his fire on Wee Davy and Wee Reggie who have led their parties from the middle ground to providing political respectability for the DUP’s veto.

  • No i dont.

    I think Peters great.I think Peters great.I think Peters great.I think Peters great.I think Peters great.I think Peters great.I think Peters great.Ok can i get up now.

  • Mick Fealty

    It’s absolutely right that Noel should turn heavy fire on anyone making big claims about the current reality of the situation in Northern Ireland. Regardless of what any of the partisan commenters on Slugger have to say about it.

    Although it’s not my own preferred style, it’s proper that Robbo was questioned within an inch of his political life. Given the evasion that’s abroad on this issue, the tougher and more searching the questions the better.

    This was a nice starter. Let’s hope there’s a good main course and a decent dessert!

  • Big Maggie

    I like Mark Thompson as an interviewer. He has a disarming manner that comes partly from his features, which appear to be smiling when they’re not.

    I recall an interview he had with Paisley senior when this worked against him (Thompson). Paisley had been unable to answer some searching questions and finally lost his rag, accused Thompson of laughing at him, and stormed out of the studio. I’d love to see a recording of it.

  • Rory

    For a man who criticises Sinn Féin for being stuck in the past, T>Ruth urging Mark Thompson to use an interview with the leader of the DUP solely in order to bring up past history in an attempt to damage Sinn Féin might seem a bit strange. Unless of course we consider that he might subscribe to the mindset of unreconstructed unionism himself and then it all falls into place.

    I was also trying to work out how we distinguish between a man with chutzpah and one who has a brass neck. Might it have anything to do with the former’s preference for the Judaic Old Testament’s intractability and judgementalism over the possibility of hope and forgiveness offered by the Christian New Testament? Or perhaps a preference for Rakussen’s matzos over Tesco’s cream crackers ( not that Buffy Cohen, though he sure was short, was short on the chutzpah). But wadda I know already?

  • Big Maggie

    Sorry, Noel, not Mark….

  • Big Maggie

    LOL, I see I’m not the only one to use ‘Mark’ instead of Noel.

  • percy

    maybe the DUP will vote over the w/end at their conference to move the situation forward on P&J;.

    Then Robbo can and will act, for we know like Paisley the DUP never will , without their base!

  • It was Sammy Mc Nally what done it

    Carson’s Cat

    “Don’t mistake quality with quantity. Just because they’ve given endless hours to the subject doesn’t deflect from the fact that most of the analysis could be mistaken for that of a small child.”

    And dont mistake pin head dancing with good analysis. A Unionist veto is a Unionist veto -however it has been arrived at – everybody apart from Unionism (from the Alliance to the DUP) want movement on this issue and Noel was dead right to make it clear to Robbo what his obligations are – as outlined to them by both governments.

  • Mick Fealty

    Sammy,

    This is the crucial flaw in your argument:

    “however it has been arrived at”

    If Sinn Fein consciously handed it them on a plate, it absolutely matters.

  • ??

    A Unionist veto is a Unionist veto…….

    which SF agreed to, now if SF think they can get a better deal , or indeed control of P+J by bringin the whole thing down then I wish they would

  • The Raven

    Veto or no, Thompson wasn’t half hard enough.

  • Steve

    Mick

    So then it matters how Sinn Fein’s veto was handed to them by the DUPers

    And they have the perfect right to use it?

  • It was Sammy Mc Nally what done it

    Mick,

    I feel a circular arguement coming on..

    What is crucially important is the politics of Now – and that is DUPs and Unionist political isolation – not how they arrived at their politcal isolation. If you are stuck in a hole (politcal and otherwise) it matters not why you got in there but how you are going to get out – at least until you are out.

    So answer me this – do you accept unionists are out of step with both govennments requirements for STA implementation? If the answer is YES then the logic of the hole metaphor surely follows. If the answer in No then surely you are indulging in a bit of obfustication or simply denial.

  • Chris Donnelly

    Mick

    Sounds to me like Sammy has it about right. If Robinson is frustrated because his line is not being followed by the mainstream media as enthusiastically as by some in the Slugger blogosphere, then his frustration will surely grow.

    If the British PM (at Stormont no less) and the then Irish Taoiseach have made clear how they believed/ believe P and J would be handled as part of the St Andrews deal, then Robbo whistling at the moon may impress some on here, but so long as Sinn Fein stick to the position presently adopted (and not before time, in my humble opinion…) then the DUP will know we’re headed for a suspension with the agenda for resumption being dominated by the outstanding issues of St Andrews.

  • Mick Fealty

    Okay Sam, we’re familiar enough with the circle not to put the readers through it yet again.

    Chris,

    The British PM cannot do anything much without getting into the territory of ‘constitutional nonsense’. Besides Robinson points out that negotiations are being dealt with. The problem he does not point to is the ‘sticking point’, which in my understanding is the ‘date’ versus ‘community confidence’ dilemma.

    I agree that this has the look of a train wreck about it, but whatever his obvious frustration, I am not sure there is anything Robinson can do about that. This is SF’s play. The sensible thing for them to do may be to let SF close out the institutions and then settle for a period of renegotiation.

    In the meantime it’s good to see a mainstream journalist ‘grow some’. 😉

  • Comrade Stalin

    It would be enjoyable to watch Noel turn his fire on Wee Davy and Wee Reggie who have led their parties from the middle ground to providing political respectability for the DUP’s veto.

    You’ve still consistently failed to explain why you think that the failure of the DUP and SF to arrive at a deal is the fault of the Alliance Party. You’ve also failed to explain what role the Alliance Party could possibly play in moving the situation on from where it is now.

    The DUP will move when it thinks it is in it’s interest to do so. Nothing will change that and, the way things are right now, there is nobody willing to apply the pressure to make them budge. I think if we were back in the days of 170 seat Westminster majorities, then the British government certainly would be pushing the DUP to do the deal. Right now, they are impotent.

    None of this excuses SF’s position. There is a job to be done in the executive, and they’re refusing to do it.

  • Big Maggie

    Comrade Stalin

    The DUP will move when it thinks it is in it’s interest to do so.

    Alas, it was ever thus with politicians. I’m no fan of Labour but they were the only politicians in my memory who actually moved on certain issues without actually needing to. Not that Labour doesn’t have more than its fair share of self-servers mind you…

  • It was Sammy Mc Nally what done it

    Comrade Stalin,

    this is not a just a dispute between SF and the DUP – it is a dispute between Nationalist Ireland and the 2 governments view on one side of how a very important part of Political/Peace process should be implemented ( Engleze governments words ) and Unionisms view. Alliance has placed itself in the Uninonist veto camp and they have gone on record as saying the current political arrangments cant/wont work and are claiming that Stormont is not ready for the transfer of police and justice. They may be saying No in a very unclear and poorly delivered way – but it is still a No.

    I find it difficult to believe that there are not some in the Alliance who are deeply unhappy with the their partys positon.

  • PeaceandJustice

    I agree with you Mick that it wasn’t a great performance by the First Minister. By losing his temper he allowed Noel Thompson to set the tone of the interview. But I also look forward to Thompson asking the Sinn Fein PIRA gang members straight questions – and to keep repeating those questions when they tell the usual lies.

  • fin

    can’t see the DUP wanting a period of negotiation, they told their base that STA got everything sorted, triplelock etc. SF will get P&J;, ILA and the Maze sorted, what will the DUP get? what will hey ask for? can they take anything from the table? possibly the right for protest free homecoming parades? can’t see nothing in it for them.
    SF are gearing up for an election and as Alex Kane says could well win extra seats, the DUP would be fighting on all fronts, traditional UUP voters going backto the UUP, traditionalist DUP voters going to the TUV………

  • Mick Fealty

    Fin,

    You clearly don’t pay a lot of attention to the minutiae of Unionist politics.

    There’s not a lot to be gained by the DUP in an election, but they don’t lose much by being seen to face SF down either.

    What ultimately crippled the UUP was having nothing to show in the 2003 campaign after years of negotiations with the Republican movement. And the DUPs know it.

    Not being ‘Trimbled’ is the top and bottom of their game plan. As for what they will ask for?

    Well, I suspect no more Paul Quinns or Robert McCartneys. Simple and emblematic.

    Can Sinn Fein deliver? Undoubtedly. But not necessarily in a given time frame.

  • fin

    I hear you Mick, and its won them votes in the past,however, possibly SF have realised that facing down the DUP is also going to win them votes, and secondly I’m not sure this is a battle the DUP should have chosen to fight. P&J;will be devolved, everyones agreed on that its when, if SF stop the executive meeting until it does – and it looks like regardless of timescales they legally can – they win, in fact I can’t see a scenario with the DUP winning. Republican activism is springing up everywhere on the DUPs watch, painting postboxes green, objecting to coppers wearing poppies, counter demo’s etc, also the Maze issue and ILA are very much alive.
    Yes, I’m calling it from a republicans viewpoint but…………..is it just possible SF baited the DUP into this situation?

  • Republic of Connaught

    Robinson becomes excessively obdurate when under pressure. Noel Thompson is a very good interviewer, always composed. He’d be ideal on RTE to lay into Biffo and Enda Kenny.

    The British and Irish governments clearly know that the DUP should have already announced dates for P&J;to be devolved. For Bertie Ahern to come on Hearts and Minds a few months back and admit that P&J;should have happened last May proves some verbal agreement must have been made at St Andrews.

    The DUP can rightfully claim it wasn’t written in legal papers – but the fact they can’t be taken at their word even by the two governments clearly paints them in a poor light. Now it’s a question of who backs down first. Neither will of course, so Stormont closes yet again.

    Stormont must be a world record holder for a devolved administration being folded up. NI when left to the local politicians is always a failure. Little wonder with people like Gregory Campbell or Sammy Wilson made ministers. If icy eyed Gerry Kelly became a minister it would be icing on the cake.

    London and Dublin need to do the decent and run the place for the ordinary people, indefinitely.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Maggie,

    Alas, it was ever thus with politicians. I’m no fan of Labour but they were the only politicians in my memory who actually moved on certain issues without actually needing to.

    No Maggie, they moved because there was no cost to them for doing so. John Major’s administration could not push things along, because they were in a hung parliament scenario (not quite, but similar to, where Brown is now) where they could not make it happen.

    To restate what I said earlier, the DUP would move right now if they thought it would gain them votes rather than costing them votes.

    Sammy etc,

    this is not a just a dispute between SF and the DUP – it is a dispute between Nationalist Ireland and the 2 governments view on one side of how a very important part of Political/Peace process should be implemented ( Engleze governments words ) and Unionisms view.

    The view of the two governments is irrelevant. And I don’t believe the boycott of the executive is endorsed by (pro-Agreement) Nationalist Ireland outside of SF. So that’s irrelevant as well.

    Alliance has placed itself in the Uninonist veto camp and they have gone on record as saying the current political arrangments cant/wont work

    Sinn Fein are saying that the current political arrangements can’t or won’t work, and they want a new one. That’s apparently why they’ve got a boycott going. Does that mean they’re unionists ? Does that mean they’re exercising a unionist veto ?

    and are claiming that Stormont is not ready for the transfer of police and justice.

    Alliance have said that they will take the ministry provided certain changes are made and other modifications are made to the programme for government. They have *asked the question* about why everyone seems to think that this matter needs to be devolved quickly – but that does not mean that they have actively prevented it.

    None of this really makes any difference to what your original point was. Your suggestion was that Alliance have somehow acted to block or slow the devolution of policing and justice powers. Alliance’s policy on the matter is completely and totally irrelevant at this point in time. Alliance are seen as nothing other than a convenient tool for the DUP or SF to use when they fail to reach agreement themselves.

    They may be saying No in a very unclear and poorly delivered way – but it is still a No.

    The Alliance Party said that they would consider the justice ministry if certain conditions were met. That is not a “no”.

    If there were all-party talks tomorrow, and Alliance were there, and there was a proposal that Alliance would take the justice ministry, I think it’s reasonably clear that this would happen if certain Alliance requirements were met by the Executive. You cannot claim that Alliance are blocking a deal, when no deal has been put on the table.

    I find it difficult to believe that there are not some in the Alliance who are deeply unhappy with the their partys positon.

    If Alliance had been presented with a serious proposal, you would have a point, but you seem to think that the “briefing via the media” approach to offering Alliance the justice ministry was somehow an acceptable way to broach the matter. It is, in fact, quite insulting. The party’s position is that it cannot accede to a deal that it has not seen, and I can assure you that *no* political party would agree to sign up under such terms, and anyone who did would be insane.

  • slug

    Mick

    Having now seen the Robinson interview I have to say I found his answers very logical and persuasive. Impressive stuff.

  • DC

    THe natural way to come at this would be to enter into the last piece of the peace process narrative, accepting the need to close this out and move on.

    But the DUP aren’t bound by that – the GFA – and have slipped into micro politics of security agenda against confidence.

    The atmosphere darkens when giving up at least the positive aspects of a tediously slow peace process aka IRA-taming-cum-SF-democracy-lovers.

    Even still lose all the feel good factor at your peril as Robinson hasn’t an ounce of charisma neither McGuinness – the two are made to fail – joint ministerialship suits them. They are both one really.

  • GavBelfast

    He was tetchy but didn’t lose his temper at all.

    His responses were plausible and even reasonable, and I say that as someone who isn’t a fan of Robinson or his party.

  • Best quote from Hearts and Minds this week:
    «It wasn’t Iris Robinson that declared homosexuality an abomination, it was the Almighty»

  • Kensei

    Mick

    Not being ‘Trimbled’ is the top and bottom of their game plan. As for what they will ask for?

    Well, I suspect no more Paul Quinns or Robert McCartneys. Simple and emblematic.

    Interesting. I can’t help feel that on the first point that type of narrow focus offers plenty of room for your opponents to play you into a corner, and that on the second that the whole point of SF effectively cutting the IRA loose means that they are completely incapable of delivering what you ask for.

    Still no time, but I did want to throw out the question of what the DUP actually wants in exchange for the devolution of P&J;. What’s the strategic goal? It is of little use in itself, and destabilising the institutions. I did wonder if the DUP thought they’d got something so important that they could extract a really high price for it — like abolishing the parades commission or ending mandatory coalition. But that would trying to trade one red line for another, and I’m nto sure it would work.

  • dub

    The trade off for devolution of p and j was the republican movement supporting the police. has this been forgotten???????

    The inanities of mick, slug, cs (sorry cs) et al here are quite extraordinary… please show me the evidence where you guys supported the provos over deccommissioning.. yes i thought not. so this is just tribal politics, even if it is done in the effete tones of slugger.

    pathetic.

  • dasw

    1. Thompson is brilliant.
    2. This is a new democracy. We should expect these teething problems. Everyone should try their best to hold their tempers. If the Executive doesn’t meet for two years than so be it. But if either SF’s electorate or UP’s electorate is not going to punish the intransigence/bad negotiating ability of their public reps then we might be stuck on this issue for tenyears. Then so be it.

  • dasw

    I agree with Mick. I think Thompson is absolutely right. He keeps his eye on the ball. Robbo has flashes of cleverness/sophistry. As policing and justice is the single most important issue at the moment hearts and mind is absolutely right to push on this issue.