Leadership recovered – now what?

My old friend Ed Curran has a long record of observing politics that is almost unrivalled among those still writing today (apart from arch patriarch Jimmy Kelly). Ed has been treating Bel Tel readers to reality checks about the nature of unionism and its leadership, a topic that greatly exercises Slugger comment. He is surely right to say that Peter Robinson has staged a quiet comeback as DUP leader and First Minister in the wake of his stunning defeat in East Belfast last May. A cautious consensus is emerging that the DUP may now emerge as the largest party in next May’s Assembly elections and stave off the threat, if I may call it that, of a Sinn Fein First Minster.

In the same spirit of appalling frankness with which he greeted the election of Tom Elliot as leader of the UUs, Ed writes of Robinson’s latest sally on integrated education:

(Peter’s) speech about the iniquities of segregated education has helped him strike DUP gold…. Can anyone think of a better way to unite the party faithful behind him than to say Catholic education should not be funded by the state? All the doubting Williams – never mind Thomases – in the DUP now can sleep easy in the knowledge that their leader has pitted himself, in the best traditions of the party, against the Vatican. .

Ed is careful to balance striking ” political gold ” with the DUP with hitting   the base metal of arousing Catholic fury.

That said, the First Minister’s suggestion that faith-based schools should not be funded by the state is so unrealistic as to be preposterous.

Ed is certainly right there.  Even if they were too easily dismissed as ” rabble rousing,” Peter’s tossed off remarks were hardly the best way to present a considered challenge to deeply held views on separate Catholic education. I may be wrong but I did not get the impression that  he was blowing a dog whistle  to  rally grass roots DUP support.  Is there not a third way to take a political trick without stirring sectarian controversy?

In an earlier column,  Ed endorsed what he sees as a new sense of reality in Tom Elliot’s emergence as UU party leader.

Progressive liberal unionism may be the darling of the media, but it is not a vote-catcher and the Ulster Unionist party has awoken to that fact.

He goes on to point to Jim Molyneaux’s success in holding down the party leadership for what seemed like an eternity. Ed is too generous here. In fact, Jim lived in perpetual terror that one day he would be blindsided, and sure enough, he was. And what sort of success was it to hide in a cul de sac for fifteen years and what sort of failure,  for Trimble to negotiate the GFA under which unionism grumbles but survives and even flourishes?

Perhaps for our generation,  the scars of old failures are too vivid. What’s missing  in this analysis  is the quality of leadership. Remember Tony Blair’s taunt to John Major in the last days of Conservative majority rule: 

” I lead my party; he follows his.”  

 Longevity in leadership or even party supremacy is not main measure of success.  Leadership requiring a balance between holding on to party support and striking out in new directions for the sake of longed for stability is always at a premium. When the needs of party and community come into better balance we will have better government. The spasms of support from all sides for at least the notion of mixed schooling suggests that some of the old comfort zones are losing their appeal with the people and that deep down political leaders know that. Will they have courage to summon up these better thoughts from the deep or remain in the deceptive comfort of their traditional default positions?


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