Peter Robinson: tactics, strategy and prisons

Peter Robinson’s recent comments about attracting Catholic votes are not especially new though he has developed his views a little further in his latest interview. I noted his attempts in such a direction some months ago following the assembly elections. Some have sought to juxtapose negatively these seemingly liberal comments with Robinson’s threat to resign as First Minister if David Ford made changes to the prison service such as removing the crown from the uniform and dropping the term “Her Majesty’s Prison”. This led to the suggestion from Obelisk that is was an example of Robinson being tactically sound but strategically flawed. I have made similar observations about Robinson in the past but more recently have suggested that the tactical thinking from Robinson and the DUP had become so good and so long term that effectively it had become strategic.

The latest episode could be read as a tactically sound solution to the current problem which is strategically flawed. However, it is not necessarily as simple as that and the tactically sound plan by Robinson to threaten election may have few if any strategic ill effects.

The problem as well as the brilliant achievement of Peter Robinson is almost to recreate a pan unionist party within the DUP. A bit like Jim Molyneaux’s mighty UUP of the 1980s and 1990s the DUP contains liberals and hard liners; secularists and fundamentalists; right and left wing; upper middle and working classes. Like Molyneaux Robinson then has to sit at the middle of this spider’s web and hold it all together. So large and diverse has the coalition that is the DUP become that he needs to ensure it is all held together. Internally there may be remarkably little overt opposition to Robinson but only two years ago it was very different with many supposed cognoscenti predicting that Robinson would not even manage a year as DUP leader. Robinson has of course not survived but triumphed and has also become identified as one of the leading moderates within the DUP. That is a place which actually those who have studied his career will be unsurprised by: those with long enough memories will remember that Peter Robinson (and Harold McCusker) proposed power sharing in the 1980s: although many may bring up the spectre of the likes of Clontibret the reality is that Robinson was never on the hard line of the DUP. Robinson of course knows this but also knows that traditionally unionist leaders have fallen to attacks from their “right” (yet again the use of right wing to denote hard line unionism is utterly flawed but it is a useful shorthand). As such Robinson will probably have thought that after his many recent liberal utterances on the likes of integrated education, it was time for a harder line comment to keep the “right wing” happy.

External pressures are also something Robinson always has to think of. The TUV still stubbornly refuse to die and the UUP is making a fair stab at moderately right wing unionism especially in the country areas where its decline has halted and one reading of the assembly election is that with good hard line candidates it can survive practically indefinitely in the dreary steeples and in a few other areas. Robinson’s tactical (maybe strategic) masterpiece was to eclipse the UUP as the lead party of unionism. As such Robinson will never if possible allow himself to be outshone by another unionist party on a key touchstone issue for the unionist community.

Robinson used the UUP capitulation over Patten and the renaming / rebranding of the RUC as a merciless weapon against the UUP. As such there is no way that Robinson would have allowed the Prison Service to have a similar renaming exercise. Had that happened the TUV and probably UUP would have repeatedly used very similar attacks on the DUP as they used on the UUP over Patten. Although the prison service may not be quite as iconic as the RUC its members are still seen by almost all unionists as part of the security forces who defended Northern Ireland from the assorted murderers. Allowing attacks on the name and integrity of the security forces is extremely politically foolish in unionist politics and although it might not have been quite as fatal for the DUP as the RUC’s rebranding was for the UUP, Robinson having created the big tent of the DUP, is not willingly going to loose any voters. He would also not be willing to hand other unionists any sticks to beat him with. Furthermore drawing a line in the sand over this issue is somewhat like Trimble’s assorted lines in the sand with the enormous caveat that few expect Robinson to rub his lines out with the same meek gracelessness which Trimble did. Rather Robinson’s line in the sand will already have had the foundation dug and the metaphorical brick wall built on a foundation of rock. The contrast between Robinson-ian and Trimble-ian lines in the sand is likely to be stark and played up endlessly: the assorted Robinson climb downs of the past will of course be conveniently forgotten or explained away.

As well as the need to present a hard line to unionists in face of this threat to the prison service there are further advantages. David Ford does seem to quite enjoy being a minister and the power it entails – incidentally no one seems to bother to remind Ford that Alliance twice ruled out taking justice prior to his snout hitting the trough and commencing his gleeful devouring of the truffles of power. Robinson clearly has other scores to settle with Alliance following Naomi Long’s (an MP little more visible than Pat Doherty once she got elected) victory in East Belfast. In view of that a shot not so much across Alliance’s bows but more all eight 15” guns hitting directly was probably exactly what Robinson wanted and indeed got – complete with to all intents and purposes meek acceptance of the direct hit from Ford.

Most Alliance voters especially within the Pale and even more so their newer vote are effectively soft unionists and as such are unlikely to regard support for the prison service in a negative light. The general Alliance voting dynamic is likely to be more unionist and more right wing (in a law and order sense) than Alliance politicians and as such are probably very happy with prisons and prison officers who keep criminals safely away from them. The good middle class citizens of Ballyhackmore almost certainly want the ne’er-do-wells who steal their cars and such like treated fairly robustly and attacks on the prison service by Ford might easily be perceived as being soft on criminals: a problem guaranteed to turn many of the liberal middle class into raving right wing vigilantes.

The claim is of course that Robinson’s remarks will play poorly to the Catholics he wants to persuade to start voting DUP. Again that is not necessarily the case. Clearly republicans and some hard line nationalists may be irritated: however, those are not the Catholic voters Robinson has been targeting. The more ambivalent on a united Ireland are less likely to be concerned. Few Catholics (likewise few Protestants) have been to (let alone in) any of Her Majesty’s Prisons and as such are unlikely to be especially offended; it is most unlikely that driving past signs for HMP Maghaberry or HMP Magilligan causes them particular distress. Furthermore the fact that the criminal fraternity from their own community have to see prison officers wearing a crown on their hats is also unlikely to cause the non criminal Catholic community paroxysms of outrage. This lack of concern is likely to be felt by not merely middle class Catholic potential unionists: working class Catholics just like working class unionists are statistically more often the victims of crime and are unlikely all to be raging liberals or republicans on the subject of criminality.

Far from being a slip or mistake then Robinson’s supposed outburst is therefore more likely to be a fairly calculated response to the danger raised by Jim Allister. Robinson could not allow the challenge to go unanswered. By his swift and fairly devastating response he will have pleased his own hard line; slammed Ford and Alliance and lost little support amongst any potential Catholic DUP voters. The fact that this will further reduce the chances of some republicans voting DUP is hardly likely to cause him any lost sleep. Robinson has demonstrated once again that beneath that velvet glove he has donned over the last couple of years there remains a mailed fist. This is most unlikely to be a problem for him: unless of course concessions on the prison service emblems do end up coming and he accepts them; then he really would have made a serious error.