When the dust settled on the Battle of Trafalgar the Royal Navy had destroyed its major enemies, beginning a rule at sea which was to last almost unchallenged for 100 years. However, in the process the admiral who had brought them the victory of Trafalgar was fatally wounded. Like Nelson before him Peter Robinson has seen his party destroy its unionist opponents and leave itself the only unionist party at Westminster; yet in the process Robinson himself has been severely, maybe fatally politically wounded. After Nelson’s death his popularity, already massive, soared to become that of an almost mythic hero. Peter Robinson whether or not he has been politically fatally wounded is unlikely to have that level of hero worship accorded to him.
The triumph the DUP has achieved is scarcely believable when one thinks back only a year when Diane Dodds limped in third (though with the second highest number of first preference votes) at the European elections. The European debacle followed a year of highly damaging revelations about multiple jobbing, huge expense claims involving luxury pens, food bills which would shame minor royalty, and the impression that the DUP’s leading families regarded themselves as tribal chieftains with the ability to distribute political patronage and the financial rewards of it to whichever of their family members or hangers on they wanted.
Vastly worse was of course to come: I maintained at the time, that the revelations of an affair by Iris Robinson were not the most damaging issue but rather her financial impropriety: worsening as they did the already major issue of the Swish family Robinson. The appearance was created of an individual comfortable with dishonesty and an appallingly in your face nouveaux riche lifestyle funded entirely at the tax payers’ expense.
In spite of all that in seat after seat the CU challenge withered and the TUV one died. Clearly in many constituencies both the opposing parties had less high profile candidates: only Jim Allister for the TUV, Reg Empey, Danny Kennedy and Mike Nesbitt for the CUs could really be described as being equal in public profile to their DUP opponents. However, with the exception of Danny Kennedy all were heavily beaten. In Nesbitt’s case it was becoming clear a number of weeks ago that the voters of Strangford were content to stick with the DUP after Iris’s removal. The celebrity status of Nesbitt may have been less attractive after the flawed celebrity of Iris Robinson, whilst the possibly slightly boring but utterly hard working image of Jim Shannon, presented a welcome return to a normal slightly staid political representative.
Elsewhere the DUP were even less troubled: Sammy Wilson, Gregory Campbell, Jeffrey Donaldson and even David Simpson were never in significant danger albeit party due the little known status of their opponents as mentioned above.
Jim Allister’s defeat by Ian Paisley junior was probably for a number of reasons: some of the star dust of the father seems to have clung to the deeply flawed second generation; Paisley junior’s scandals had faded somewhat from the public consciousness; Allister had less of a party machine. However, although the undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the current dispensation demonstrated by many unionists in 2009 at the European elections probably remains, it seems that for the meantime at any rate they are unwilling to pursue a radical renegotiation of the whole agreement.
William McCrea’s defeat of Reg Empey was in some ways even more crushing a symbol of the DUP’s dominance at least at this Westminster election: a member of parliament who had never convincingly gelled with the constituency, had a less than ideal record in his support for the likes of Billy Wright and who lacked a reputation for overwhelming consistency work still managed to defeat the leader of the UUP. That defeat sealed not only Reg Empey’s fate but also the triumph of Peter Robinson’s tactical vision of defeating the UUP. Ironically at the moment of victory the victor was himself vanquished.
The reasons for Peter Robinson’s personal defeat are of course many and complex. I have heard it argued that looking back a number of years the DUP discouraged transfers to the UUP in East Belfast and this helped the growth of Alliance. In addition of course the UUP put up one of their minor celebrity candidates in East Belfast and Trevor Ringland lacked the political traction to appeal to many unionist voters who simply switched to Long.
All the above of course ignores not the elephant, but more the Blue Whale in the room (rather like the one in the National History museum) which was the issue of Peter Robinson’s personal financial dealings. Robinson can argue that he was exonerated over his wife’s wrong doings and he may well be correct: certainly carping at him over attending to his work shortly after his wife had allegedly attempted suicide was unfair. However, his suggestions that his food bills were reasonable and his comments: “I think if MP’s slept on a Park Bench and starved themselves that would still be too much for some people” smacked very much of Marie Antoinette’s infamous (though maybe unfairly attributed) “Let them eat cake” comment. Robinson’s claims to have effectively been whiter than white over expenses looked at best crass and his continual refusal to accept even the appearance of sharp practice over the £5 land deal looked extremely ill judged. When he then proceeded to conduct a series of extremely ill tempered media interviews it became clear that a man who once had a pretty good understanding of the public mood had retreated into a neverland of his own political fantasy. As an aside it is interesting that is was a property row / scandal which brought Robinson down: a most Irish of scandals judging by recent RoI political history for the most determinedly unIrish of political parties.
It seems that Peter Robinson has functioned as a sort of lightening conductor for the DUP’s woes: he has taken the anger of the voters upon himself and probably unwittingly managed to protect his party at the expense of his own Westminster humiliation.
In the immediate aftermath of the election it looked possible that Robinson would resign as leader, possibly after a suitable interlude to make his removal more seemly. However, in more recent statements emanating from DUP land there seems no hint of this. It has been suggested that Robinson may stay on and that both that decision and his one to fight the Westminster election against his own better judgement were brought about by advice from his own inner circle.
I have consistently argued that Peter Robinson is tactically superb yet strategically flawed and these decisions seem again to reinforce that analysis of Robinson himself and his inner circle. Robinson has brilliantly masterminded the destruction of the UUP over a number of years: moving from the position where it held a dozen seats to where it is now with none. Robinson has also managed to move his party into the unionist mainstream and indeed to become the unionist mainstream, yet if this month’s results are anything to go by, hold onto the vast majority of hard liners. However, these hard liners both in the party and the electorate seem to have held with him through very gritted teeth if the reported rows over P&J devolution and Jim Allister’s European election results are anything to go by. In addition Robinson’s move onto the old UUP ground and acquisition of the majority of their old electoral support may have come close to uniting unionism but has also not made the unionist parties politically united. Although the DUP gained the likes of Arlene Foster, Jeffrey Donaldson and Peter Weir; Robinson has failed to unite the parties and is far from popular within the UUP and even at times one suspects not that popular within the DUP, certainly not with the aforementioned hard liners.
Part of Robinson’s problem is of course that having masterminded the destruction of the UUP he is never going to be that popular within that party. However, in addition although he is said to be personally charming and affable he has always come across as austere and somewhat stony: he has never conveyed anything like the personal charisma of Ian Paisley; yet also lacks the appearance of even handed consensual leadership which would have allowed a less personally charismatic leader still to be a unifying force. Peter Robinson is neither a Winston Churchill nor a Clement Attlee figure.
Moving forwards the DUP may have difficulties finding a suitable replacement as leader and as such the siren voices telling Peter Robinson that he is vital to unionism might have a point. One could suggest that Peter Robinson is the DUP or even unionism’s Tony Blair and that any replacement leader would be doomed to go down to defeat like Gordon Brown. Such a suggestion is, however, nonsense. Peter Robinson has been a successful tactician plotting the rise of the DUP and it is fair to say that the obvious potential replacements all have their own imperfections. However, Peter Robinson has very many of his own and now if unionist unity is to be considered he is much too divisive a figure, probably within his own party and certainly within broader unionism, to unite its disparate strands.
Increased unionist cooperation and possibly unionist unity has frequently been suggested in recent days (though with many against as well as for). However, although the UUP was destroyed in Westminster terms they are still very much alive in the context of Stormont and local councils. Even if in the long term their wounds are fatal they have not gone away you know and any unity under Peter Robinson is unlikely to be any more than a political pact and one with significant misgivings especially on the UUP side as any unity would look like the DUP gobbling up the UUP. In addition a united unionism might attract some of the remaining TUV support and that is unlikely to be possible with Robinson as leader.
Peter Robinson has been a significant figure within unionism for years. In many ways unionism has benefited from his political cunning and negotiating skills. Now, however, after only a brief period as the leader of unionism and having almost completed the destruction of the UUP he would actually be wiser to leave. The problem has always been for both Robinson and, one suspects his inner circle, seeing the difference between what is best for Peter Robinson, for the DUP and for unionism. The inability to see the differences between those has led to Robinson’s worst flaws and mistakes and his defeat at Westminster. Unless he can see that, a united unionism, apparently his cherished goal, will prove either impossible or if by chance achieved, a forced marriage rather than the two becoming one flesh.