Peter Robinson in new pitch for united Unionism – what’s the offer?

Peter Robinson’s reply in the Belfast Telegraph to Ed Curran’s two recent columns

Dear Peter and Reg, do we really need two unionist parties now?..

and

Could Tory pact hasten end of UUP at the next election?
is the clearest evidence yet that electoral politics dominate everything he does in and out of the Assembly. His vision of a two party system is now out in the open.

“I believe that in the future the time will come when unionism will be represented by a single political party. Demographic changes and the emergence of a single dominant nationalist party may make this inevitable.”

BTW it can easily be argued that this debate is wholly out of date. Monolithic sectarian blocs are the last thing our fragile democracy needs. Instead, it’s essential to continue to offer choice inside each camp. And how can Peter’s idea of united unionism be consistent with his dream of a future voluntary coalition, if he only has Sinn Fein to coalesce with? But back to the politics of today…As usual June’s euro-election will be treated as a straight referendum on the parties. The DUP no longer have their charismatic old chief to portray his mountainous victories of the past as his coronation as the leader of Unionism, even though he then led the smaller party. Today fear of being outflanked by the mouse that roars, the apostate sitting MEP Jim Allister, dominates the DUP inner psyche. Yet even in 1999, as Peter points out, John Hume ran Paisley close. The demographics were beginning to increase the pressure on divided unionism..This time round, Diane Dodds is hardly the charismatic substitute so a deal is attractive.

Can Peter now pull off united Unionist cooperation and presage an even more fateful deal for the general election? Is he simply firing the opening shots in a blame game? Or is he hinting at giving the UUs a clear run in say, South Belfast? Unionist unity was possible in 1974 but, as a negative force to resist Sunningdale and then only briefly. It foundered in the 1975 Convention over Bill Craig’s sudden ill-prepared offer of a voluntary coalition. Noone savaged Craig more than Peter who roundly beat him to take East Belfast. However Peter came to learn the pitfalls of co-operation for himself, with the stony rejection of his own efforts in the report “An End to Drift” in 1987 with Harold McCusker and Frank Millar recommending a united Unionist negotiating position to circumvent the Anglo-Irish Agreement. That rather brave act of rare individual initiative outside the folds of Paisley’s cloak threatened his career.

In today’s circumstances, Peter will have to stop taunting the UUP with oblivion and start talking nicely to them ( so very difficult for him). What has he actually got to offer? On the other side of the argument Ed Curran asked: Can the UUs survive? Probably they can, under STV/PR, and continue to attract some garden centre support, for the more important Assembly. However, there’s little sign of them showing fresh energy to fire up the shadowy Conservative link-up for Westminster contests. Has it been forgotten? Or might it become an entry vehicle for DUP support for the Conservatives if a DUP/UU deal can be done?

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London