DUP leader Peter Robinson turned personal on myself and the BBC’s political editor Mark Devenport today when we dared to challenge his bonafides and leadership in the wake of the controversy surrounding his private life. Launching his party’s election manifesto in a tense atmosphere in ‘the upper room’ in the Ulster Hall, the DUP leader unleashed his tongue, firstly against TUV leader Jim Allister and his party, before rattle snaking myself and Mr. Devenport. He was regularly shielded by his number two, Nigel Dodds, who remained dignified throughout.
When asked why Jim Allister scarcely got a mention in his address unlike his obsession with the TUV boss at the party’s annual conference Mr. Robinson said:
“I think more and more people regard the TUV as being so negative without any policies or strategies to bring unionism forward, that while they can vote for them as a protest, they are not prepared to vote for them to get the job done – so I am not concerned or obsessed with Jim Allister or the TUV but I do have a responsibility to alert the unionist community that if they really do want to make Northern Ireland work – if they do want to see Northern Ireland really work, they have to go out and vote for it, and that means going out to vote for the DUP, and not for those who would take us back to the bad old days of the past.”
I was now given the microphone to put one question to the First Minister (this short section has been YouTubed here). “Are you aware, no matter where I go or my colleagues go, you’re the one about whom everyone wants to speak.
“They want you to answer the question that remains unanswered and I would be abdicating if I didn’t ask the question. Can you explain and tell the electorate and the constituency across Northern Ireland, why you entered into that deal with Fred Fraser if you had access to your own garden….Why did you do it ? I asked.
Mr Robinson said:
“I have no difficulty because I have clarified it before. I made it clear and the BBC programme made it clear itself, that I got what was market value for my land, no uplift at all.
“BBC programme also made it clear that I had access on a free standing site if I had wanted to develop myself but I am not a developer and therefore didn’t do it myself and therefore facilitated, not buying the land, but facilitated a transfer from one developer to another so that the site could go ahead and my neighbours would also be able to benefit from it as well. No story. No benefit at all”
Mark Devenport intervened at this point:
“I’ll pick up on Eamonn’s one. The TUV would say that the DUP’s mired by scandal. Is your leadership of benefit to the party or is it detracting from the party?”
Nigel Dodds jumped in and grabbed the reins:
“We pay tribute to Peter’s leadership at a very difficult time in the political process.”
(More thunderous applause.)
Peter Robinson then seized the microphone at this point:
“You wonder why it’s always the same journalists from the same areas that ask these kind of questions. If Eamonn Mallie says everywhere he goes it just shows the kind of people he’s meeting with. Doesn’t it?”
Mr. Robinson should know many of them might not be too far away from him.
It is early days in this election. The atmosphere is likely to remain tense anywhere Peter Robinson is. The challenge to the media is to remain professional and to remember what our role is.