The latest comments by Peter Robinson implying that the devolution of policing and justice might be moving closer are interesting. They need to be seen alongside the other comments coming from the DUP. The suggestion that people within republican areas have assisted the police in the investigation of the recent murders has been spun by the DUP (rightly or wrongly) as showing that the republican leadership are now fully backing the police and the rule of law. It looks, as I mentioned below, as if Robinson is preparing the ground for the devolution of P&J in the near future. This is an interesting decision and to telegraph it prior to the European election is also an interesting decision and not without risk.
Robinson may calculate that by demonstrating that P&J will be devolved he cannot be accused of selling out after an election when it is devolved. However, with Reg Empey having suggested that the murders of members of the security forces should delay P&J devolution along obviously with Jim Allister’s long term opposition; it makes Robinson out of step with, and more liberal than other unionists. Robinson may feel that the wave of community cohesion in the aftermath of the murders along with the support for McGuinness’s denunciation of the murderers of Constable Carroll makes him more in tune with the unionist electorate than the others on this issue. That may be correct; however, as I have suggested previously people may have a multi phase response to the events of last month and it is undoubtedly a gamble to regard the recent events as showing increased unionist confidence.
Robinson in his recent appearances with McGuinness does seem to be more comfortable: the body language does look a little more at ease. Robinson may be willing to accept McGuinness’s bone fides. However, it is very easy to remind the world that the same Martin McGuinness gave his word to Frank Hegarty’s mother at a series of meetings that her son would be safe. That being the same Mr. Hegarty whose body was found near Castlederg having been murdered by members of the same organisation as Mr. McGuinness was once a member. One could also point out that Mr. McGuinness has his oath to the IRA which trumps any need to tell the truth to anyone else. McGuinness may have truly changed, what he said in the wake of Constable Carrolls’ murder may be completely true and he may be truly helping cement democracy. Robinson may truly believe all that and the unionist electorate may agree but only may.
A new pressure on Robinson may be coming from his deputy. McGuinness will no doubt suggest that SF has crossed a Rubicon and that to ensure they do not lose hard line support, Robinson must give something in exchange. I am also sure McGuinness has pointed out how far his own statement went and that it was further than any other members of SF. McGuinness will surely now play this card and may also suggest that having made his comments, he personally is now maybe even a bit exposed and needs a quid pro quo from Robinson in the form of movement on P&J and probably signs of movement prior to the European election. If that is the case I would suggest that by his words of last month McGuinness may be able to gain additional concessions on P&J.
Robinson is also under a degree of pressure from the British government and indeed international opinion to accept what is regarded as the final act to make devolution complete (though not a final act necessary in Wales). In addition whatever the details of the deal hammered out after the prolonged SF imposed hiatus in government, the DUP appeared to have agreed to something regarding P&J devolution. Many commentators at the time suggested that SF had not gained a date (and indeed had gained nothing). I suggested that we would only know much later. Whilst there may not have been a date, I always suspected it would be difficult for the DUP to keep playing the not yet card indefinitely.
To come back to the deliberately almost throw away remark I made earlier about Robinson’s body language around McGuinness: there is a danger for Robinson here. Whilst Robinson is coming nowhere near the chuckle brothers, there is no doubt that recent events seem to have drawn him and McGuinness closer (at least in public). His suggestion that the political class would defeat the threat from dissident terrorists very clearly brought Martin McGuinness and SF into the fold of the political class. At the time people wanted unity due to the fear of a spiral of violence. However, Robinson has now welcomed into the political class and seems to be accepting as equals a considerable number of convicted murderers and those suspected of involvement in a series of the most heinous murders in Northern Ireland. Whilst at the time that may not have raised too many hackles, as people think on it, there is a danger that that acceptance may rebound on the DUP in general and Robinson in particular: the spectre of chuckling is not that far away. Certainly it makes the battle a day seem a bit hollow and also undermines the cause for which Nelson McCaulsand was twice ejected from the Stromont chamber.
Of course part of the problem in all this for Robinson seems to be the charm and niceness of Martin McGuinness. He seems to be a genuinely affable person who charmed Ian Paisley and now seems to be in the process of charming Robinson. Few seem to be immune to McGuinness’s spell; though those like Gregory Campbell who are, McGuinness seems to have a particular loathing for. Maybe Martin McGuinness and SF have truly changed: maybe the DUP are correct and can persuade the unionist electorate. However, since few of us have met McGuinness (and I would suggest few want to) unionists may remember that the same Martin McGuinness charmed and convinced Frank Hegarty’s mother. As I said at the start the current choreography represents Robinson taking something of a risk. How big a one he is taking we will wait and see but I am far from certain he needs to take it at this time.