It may be more two weeks now since Peter Robinson’s triumph at the polls but although time may make people more blazé about it that does not change the nature of his victory. I have frequently argued that Peter Robinson was a master tactician but not a brilliant strategist. However, the tactics have now become so good, so long term and so apparently successful that they have effectively become a strategy.
The whole thing looked so unbelievably different a year ago. Following the Iris Robinson scandal and the Spotlight exposés of his financial dealings Robinson looked a broken man. His response on the media was angry and at times intemperate: though to be fair the media did seem to be hounding him and his family. Then came his Westminster defeat: it looked as though all the hubris of the DUP in general and Peter Robinson in particular was going to collapse. The schadenfreude came from practically everywhere: the media, the UUP (especially the likes of David Trimble); even it seemed many in his party. Robinson’s demise after only one year as Paisley’s replacement was inevitable.
That he survived is a tribute to his character and determination. However, it is also a tribute to the power he had become in the DUP: he was maybe not irreplaceable but remarkably close to it.
Although it was Ian Paisley who founded the DUP, for very many years it was Peter Robinson who ran the party. He became the power both behind and beside the throne. Whilst Paisley provided the drama and the bluster, Robinson set about creating a party which would eventually eclipse the UUP. In this he was of course helped by others: most notably David Trimble who decided on a self destruction strategy for the UUP which could scarcely have been more successful had he started out with that aim in mind.
After Jim Allister left the DUP and the Dromore by election Dr. Paisley finally left the scene. This presented Robinson with his chance after all those years of becoming leader. Initially he was rocked by the disaster which was the European election result and then he had to deal with Irisgate and the enquiries into his financial dealings: all of which culminated in last May’s humiliation.
Robinson’s personal response has been extremely clever: it is almost certainly unfair to say it was wholly calculating but it has been extremely effective. Initially he tried to draw a veil over as much of his private and personal problems as possible. Then he became angry and rattled. This response was in actual fact far from unreasonable. The prying into his private life and his personal affairs seemed extremely intrusive. His wife did seem to be genuinely unwell but by turns that was either doubted or else Robinson was castigated for being insufficiently caring. When he became angry that was claimed to be a sign of weakness.
After his defeat at Westminster the media seemed to stop kicking the man who was down. This may have been in part because some felt that he was vital to the political process of which the media have always been supporters rather than impartial observers. In addition many may have felt that they had actually gone far too far in their hounding and enjoyment of the Robinsons’ problems. It is worth remembering that Peter Robinson has been found guilty of absolutely no wrong doing over the assorted financial and personal issues.
As the media’s assault slackened, however, Robinson, far from launching attacks against them, softened his image. It has frequently been said that before the cameras start rolling Peter Robinson can be quite pleasant and relaxed with the media. However, until last year when the camera came on he has always been ready for maximum attack. More recently, however, he has been much more emollient; no less strong in his views, no less able to win the argument but so much better at winning it without smashing the interviewer or his political opponent into pieces. The mailed fist is no less hard than before but now it is covered by a velvet glove. This tactic is much more how interviews are conducted by mainland GB political leaders and by those with the power: the angry combative interviews are more usually from those outside power. It took Robinson a year or more and several disasters but he has managed this transition extremely effectively. As he has become more relaxed with the media, they have found it more difficult to attack him and his stature has grown immensely to the extent that now he is the practically unassailable leader of unionism.
Along with the personal response to his problems the political response of the DUP under Robinson has also been extremely astute. The DUP like most parties now use focus groups and all the other tools of modern politics but their use of these devices has been extremely effective. Initially the DUP tried something of a not an inch approach to demonstrate that unlike the UUP they would not cave in and that they could be just as hard as the TUV. This tactic was to an extent defeated by Sinn Fein at the Hillsborough talks. The DUP, however, had enormous defences in depth. Although most independent observers would argue that they lost at Hillsborough: conceding P&J devolution and a number of more minor things in exchange for an agreement on parading which produced pretty disastrous legislation which might have banned religious meetings and barbarques. The Orange Order promptly threw out the parading agreement resulting in more egg on face for the DUP.
Whilst they were doing all this, however, and especially after the Westminster elections the DUP brought forward their new narrative on Northern Ireland: it is this narrative which is probably the most brilliant piece of politics in Northern Ireland since Hume’s single transferable speech and surpasses it by a huge margin.
The narrative is that Northern Ireland is getting better, the place is moving forward and improving and that this is largely the DUP’s doing. This narrative claims credit for all unionism’s victories since the IRA ceasefire: in all but name it proclaims the IRA’s surrender. It also appropriates to the DUP all the material successes of the Stormont executive: everything from free bus passes for the elderly to free prescriptions; new hospitals, avoiding water charges and freezing the regional rate. In reality a number of these successes were delivered by other parties and others are of uncertain value. However, as the unionist party most closely associated with the current devolution settlement, the DUP have managed to claim the lion’s share of the credit.
Set alongside the moving forward narrative is the issue of ministerial competence. Overall the DUP ministers have proved pretty competent in their departmental roles: certainly there have been relatively few disasters, especially recently. In contrast the UUP had problems with McGimpsey at health; Reg Empey and latterly Danny Kennedy whilst competent have been in lower profile positions (as have the SDLP’s ministers). The incompetence of almost all the Sinn Fein ministers has helped underline the superiority of the DUP’s team and played to a narrative of the DUP winning for unionism at Stormont.
This narrative plays well with the mainstream unionist voter: it helps solidify the vote which came to the DUP due to Trimble and the UUP’s failure to deliver on republican concessions and failure to make Stormont work successfully for unionists (or anyone else). Trimble and the UUP may claim to have done the heavy lifting but the DUP claim the credit for making the advances, achieving the goals and cementing a successful devolved agreement within the union.
One of the cleverest things about this narrative is that it blames almost all the failure of devolution on others and not the DUP. The UUP are blamed for the problems with the NHS; republicans meanwhile get the blame for the education debacle. The ineffectual nature of the Stormont system of government is blamed on the UUP, SDLP and Sinn Fein. On the other hand when Jim Allister points to the problems with the current settlement it is claimed that he will take us back to the past and that indeed the DUP also want to reform Stormont but only they from inside can do it without the murderous bogeymen returning. It is almost impossible to find anything positive which the DUP do not take credit for or anything negative which they cannot blame others for. In this set up mandatory coalition and the lack of collective responsibility suits the DUP perfectly.
Whilst the above narrative is effective in keeping much of the DUP’s new support on board, Robinson’s ambition is much greater than that. He also clearly wants (and has largely managed) to stop a slippage of support to the TUV and wants to capture the more moderate unionist, even Alliance vote.
To ensure minimal slippage to the TUV, the DUP have mercilessly used the danger of slipping back to violence issue. However, in addition they have used their breadth of talent to have senior ministers on a sort of hard line sentry duty. Nelson McCausland is an extremely intelligent and well read man: however, he has been willing to parade all manner of causes which bring the opprobrium of the chattering classes but play well to a hard line narrative and the fundamentalists in North Antrim and the Dreary Steeples. The idea of creationism in the Ulster museum will gain some supporters in those areas. In addition promotion of Ulster Scots will please a few. More important, however, these issues along with Nelson’s at times contemptuous treatment of Irish and the GAA help in certain quarters. Few will forget his first interview on becoming culture minister when he said he lived in a cul de sac but spoke no French (comparing that to his non knowledge of Irish) and that did not know who the All Ireland champions were but that equally he did not know who the all Ireland badminton champion was (I suspect he almost said tiddlywinks instead). This almost court jester style will have pleased some and since Nelson seems quite a political distance removed from Robinson himself the damage does not seem to accrue to Robinson.
If Nelson McCausland is somewhat the light hearted jester (though many republicans may not see it that way) Gregory Campbell represents the much harder face of hard line position within the DUP. Peter Robinson may have a working relationship with Martin McGuinness: he may even have shaken hands with him but it is quite clear that the world will be strangely moved before Campbell would show the slightest friendliness to anyone associated with republican terrorism. Here again the narrative is clear for the hard liners : it is that we still know these people are the supporters of terrorism and whilst we may work with them, we still despise them. Campbell has been keen to speak up in support of the likes of Joanne Mathers’ widower in his fight for justice and it is pretty clear at whose door Campbell lays the overall responsibility for the IRA in Londonderry at that time. Here the narrative is “We feel your pain: we do not and will not forget either.” This narrative has been remarkably effective with almost all the victims’ relatives I know.
The DUP and Robinson have not, however, been looking over their shoulder solely at the hard line unionists they might have lost: Robinson’s ambition is nothing like so limited. He may have lost to Naomi Long in large part due to the protest vote against him and the incompetence of the UUP candidate, but he has clearly seen the danger of continued leakage of support to Alliance. To combat this Robinson has himself played up his liberal side. He was always more liberal than his quite hard image suggested but over the past year he has played up this part of his political character: nowhere better than his suggestions about integrated education (which by annoying the Catholic church probably does relatively little harm with the ultra hard line either). Attending the funeral of Ronan Kerr was almost certainly an action of conscience but it was also one which sent out a definite political message. Added to the liberal side there has been the proclaimed competence of the DUP mentioned earlier which is likely to attract many of the more liberal vote.
Robinson has achieved what Jim Molyneaux did before: create a coalition of a party with members who can appeal to both liberal and hard line; right and left wing, authoritarian, and even fairly libertarian unionists; even religious and secular. To have managed this with the DUP is a quite stunning achievement. Although Jim Molyneaux defeated his opponents in the DUP he did not move his party on much (they were of course very different times). Robinson, however, has not only outflanked his opponents to the right and left but in addition has managed to move his party a very considerable distance. He now receives the plaudits of the international community but has managed to remain popular with almost all the unionist electorate. There are still major challenges and dangers ahead of the DUP but for the meantime they have achieved a truly stunning victory, the more so when one considers the problems they and their leader faced 12 months ago. Robinson has proved himself the equal of his long time boss as a politician and a leader. If he can continue to conquer his opponents in unionism and further weaken republicanism and make it essentially the nationalist party with an Irish name he will have achieved as much as a unionist leader as those of unionist folklore: Carson, Craigavon, Bookeborough: Robinson?
This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.