Peter Robinson tactics, strategy and Stranmillis

Mick has a blog on Alex Kane’s latest column looking at Peter Robinson’s conference speech below as has Chris Donnelly. One line in it struck me that Robinson was a master strategist. I have in the past described Robinson as a good tactician but a poor strategist. However, more recently I have begun to think I was wrong and that the tactics had become so long term that they had become a strategy. Indeed the vision sketched out by Robinson is strategic and more forward looking than practically any in Northern Ireland in decades.

His remarks about Stranmillis College have, however, made me a bit less convinced though not necessarily in the manner which some suggest.

Firstly it is not necessarily hypocritical that Robinson has championed Integrated Education at the same time as riding to the defence of Stranmillis. It is indeed a place with a specific ethos: large numbers of the trainee teachers are highly religious; it has a more rural and much more female bias than most universities; it has a huge Christian Union and the religious make up of its students probably helps explain the high level of religious influence on state schools much more than the assorted Protestant prelates on the Boards of Governors of state schools. The majority of the students are Protestant (probably more than 90%) and in some ways it is a microcosm of middle class rural Protestant Northern Ireland.

The question arises why Peter Robinson is riding to the defence of Stramillis if he is so interested in Integrated Education and a shared society. The reason is not merely Jim Allister’s demands that something be done. There is the simple reason of equity. The Catholic Church runs St. Mary’s and it seems that whatever changes Steven Farry proposes to make to Stramillis are not going to be reciprocal with imminent changes to St. Mary’s. As such it is perfectly reasonable and compatible with a desire for Integrated Education to demand that Stramillis’s largely bottom up from the students Protestant ethos be preserved until such time as St Mary’s much more overt and top down from the Catholic church, Catholic ethos is changed. It is reasonable to ask why a private religious organisation is allowed to have not only its own schools but decide on its own teachers and not be amenable to fair employment legislation: all with state money. Until that is settled threatening Stranmillis’s ethos seems very one sided.

There are clearly honourable defences for the above position regarding the Catholic church but it is entirely reasonable for Robinson to insist that until such time as there is a thoroughgoing review and change of all teacher training within Northern Ireland, Stranmilli and its ethos should be protected.

Therefore there is no contradiction between strategy and tactics here. It is reasonable to say that we should all move forwards together into a shared society including a shared teacher training and education system but that we should all do that together. In view of the fall in numbers of pupils and hence, the reduced need for new teachers it would seem eminently reasonable to reduce the number of teacher training colleges: the fight as to which of Stramillis or St Mary’s should be the teacher training college or whether it should be elsewhere might well be bitter but it would be fair and right to end up with one main teacher training college for primary and many secondary teachers. There is already a precedent for integrated primary teacher training: for many years the NUU and later UUC at Coleraine taught trainee teachers. Those teachers were employed in both the Catholic and state sectors without quibble from prelates of either Catholic or Protestant denominations. Some classes were separate but the students did most classes together. Getting back to that system would be entirely reasonable be it at Coleraine, somewhere in Belfast or elsewhere.

However, this episode also demonstrates some of Robinson’s strategic mistakes or at least the limits on what he can achieve practically no matter what his strategic plans. He cannot force the amalgamation of St. Mary’s and Stramillis no more than he can force the integration of the state and Catholic sectors. Robinson gained significant concessions at St Andrews including the ability to veto changes which the DUP did not feel were in the interests of the unionist community and by in large they have used their veto or threat of it reasonably successfully. However, they also at St. Andrews handed Sinn Fein a veto on changes. This makes Robinson’s dream of Integrated Education very difficult to realise: furthermore the changes he has often suggested he wants to a proper form of collective responsibility and proper cabinet government – a normal democracy- can also be vetoed by Sinn Fein.

Although Robinson may have masterminded the strategy which brought the DUP to power and although he may have a strategy to ensure the union indefinitely he currently lacks the tactical levers to change things to enact this grand strategy. Yes unionism is in a better position than it was under Trimble and is in a better position than it has been for years:. Yes unionism is probably in a better position than nationalism / republicanism but the suspicion lingers that Robinson and the DUP could and should have achieved more at St. Andrews but that their lust for power stopped them holding out for what the strategy called for.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.