Still too delphic, Peter

Perhaps someone closer to the scene can tell me what Peter Robinson is trying to say in his Union 2021 essay.

To me it reads like a coy appeal to the dwindling numbers of Ulster Unionists to throw in their lot with the DUP and an attempt to cool down the extremes of DUP paranoia before the Assembly election. It seems like classic positioning from the centre, if only he could find where and what the centre is. On the following, Peter is surely right when he says:

There was a time, not long ago, when there were clear dividing lines between the DUP and UUP in policy terms, but today the differences are largely synthetic.

Note the important qualification: ” in policy terms.” He acknowledges the drag of history on the committed of both parties. At the same time, he knows unionist voters are largely indifferent to the legacy of the forty year vicious civil war within unionism which the UUs now seem bent on carrying on all on their own.

Once, the attractions of unionist unity were compelling and decisive. Undeniably, it was unity that created the State in its original guise . Peter now warns against “complacency.” that the Union will remain forever secure. But it was a different complacency – that unionist unity was enough – that in turn destablised the State and made revolt credible.

Peter says some good things which show how far unionist orthodoxy has travelled in his political lifetime.

 I also believe that confident unionists will, over the next decade, continue to improve our relationship with our nearest neighbours in the Republic without any threat to our constitutional position…. That will be a real sign of how far we, and they, have come..  If republicans head down a constitutional cul-de-sac we must not follow them down it.

Our real long-term security lies in attracting not only those for whom the constitution is the key issue but to be able to provide a policy platform which can best deliver good government for the people of Northern Ireland. That will be the real challenge we face in the years ahead.

We need to find a new equilibrium that will preserve unionism not just for the next decade but for the next century.

Where is the fulcrum of this ” new equilibrium” to be found?  If this means anything more than warm words to liberal -ish unionists and the uncommitted to try to increase unionist turnout, it suggests he’s sincere about powersharing with a Sinn Fein committed to powersharing with the DUP. Foreseeably the ” constitutional cul de sac “of Irish unity is not open to traffic. Is Peter trying to discard  as futile  the   DUP’s  aspiration to challenge SF ‘s supposed veto  on the  DUP’s ideas for  Assembly reform? 

He ends with a generalised plea for unionist unity, but fails to make clear whether he’s appealing to all unionists to vote DUP or is angling for a merger. At the very least, it appears like a mild outflanking move to the left of the new UU leader.

The theological quarrel over the significance of Tom Elliot’s GAA remarks may be classic evidence of terminal decline. But death throes can be prolonged and unpredictable.

Today Peter may be hedging his bets on the  collapse of  the Ulster Unionist party before next year’s election. But given his own vulnerability, will he ever be in a position to make them an offer they can’t refuse?  To position himself as the statesmanlike leader of  unionism – a role he has striven for for a quarter of a century – may be  the right strategy for him. If so, he needs to spell out exactly what  it entails.

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