The political logic says Peter should stay if he’s cleared

This is a comment prompted by Mick’s oped for the Times. Apologies for posting it rather than commenting in the appropriate thread, but I can’t do so for technical reasons. Mick concludes his eloquent backgrounder:

“ For Mr Robinson, his political career is almost over.”

This isn’t obvious to me. If the DUP unanimously back Peter under the cosh of scrutiny for sleaze, how can they explain it if they ditch him restored to virtue? Shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the party, Arlene and Nigel impaled themselves on a pretty big hook yesterday when they didn’t absolutely need to. This image will stick.

The uninvolved majority of us are all wallowing, quite cruelly and enjoyably, in the impact of Peter as cuckold. That will recede, believe it or not. And let’s keep a sense of proportion. In Irisgate, nobody died, unlike as in other more familiar yet far more sinister crises, after which those involved survived and thrived. Let’s keep it that way. Btw,

I’m just a bit surprised that even some progressive commentators blithely accept that the sex angle has destroyed his authority. Talk to the kids, they’re more charitable once they’ve got the tweets out of their system. We really are in uncharted territory here.

But the DUP look as it’s dawning on them that if they change a leader cleared of sleaze, they affect their own prospects for the worse. Four months before one election – or even earlier if another is called – the party must play it straight for the sake of their own interests, and offer a consistent message. That means Peter if he’s cleared, stays, however awkward the timetable.

On the politics of the thing, let’s hold off on the destruct button, .now that fresh exchanges on J&P have begun. A maxim of democratic politics is that in the end what you say in public is more important than what you mutter in private. OK, this rule is dismissed in our little set up where conspiracies and plots are oh so cool. But it always works when the votes are cast.

Now that they have assumed the leading role they fought so long to achieve by nay saying, the DUP are impaled on the hook of the classic unionist dilemma of “deal or no deal” over the deal they themselves have already struck.

But appealing as they now must beyond their core vote, they would do better to avoid the classic Ulster Unionist path from O’Neill to Trimble of swearing undying support for the leader one day before chucking him overboard the next. Nothing was more was destructive of UU credibility.

I’d say that if Peter goes, the party risks greater rejection than if he stays. Either way, the DUP leader must honestly confront the TUV analysis which like racism in British society, is in all unionist hearts. It’s not what you feel, it’s how you deal with it that counts.

The DUP also need to frame an answer to the basic question some may be too embarrassed even to ask : What exactly is the issue over J&P ? The rest of us keep leaping in with elaborate answers. We should now shut up for a while and listen out for an answer.

Mick has expressed it “they loathe everything the other stands for, .” Maybe. They knew that at St Andrews and yet the deal was struck . What had happened? The republicans achieved the monumental outcome of the end of the IRA, they play their part in the Policing Board and in echoes of the civil war, they join the DUP in denouncing dissident violence. This is a record that the DUP can defend.

So the question is this: what reason do the DUP give their electorate for objecting to the transfer of J&P that Sinn Fein can deal with ? Sinn Fein ask the equally basic question, do the DUP ever mean to share power? More than core Sinn Fein supporters require a convincing answer. The unionist rejoinder, that Sinn Fein have stunted a provocative agenda on the language and the stadium etc. just to falsefoot the DUP isn’t convincing; those are issues that can be settled.

Each party is saddling the other with the responsibility for keeping the Assembly going. But there are some signs today and yesterday, that that tired old dynamic is changing under pressure from the voters who are not as stupid as some may think. It could it be that our parties are at last starting to learn the lessons of history rather than blindly repeating them.

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