Robinson (and DUP’s) use of language could make or break his strategy…

Alex Kane has some useful thoughts on the DUP, post Robinson’s speech. In particular, he notes a key difference in the trajectories of the two big parties in Northern Ireland, themselves and Sinn Fein: the degree to which each has invested in further penetration of the middle class vote:

Robinson knows that the DUP’s survival requires movement beyond the ‘happy-clappy’ evangelicalism of Protestant/unionist fundamentalism and onto territory which is reasonably comfortable for the liberal, secular wing of unionism too.

For a long time the DUP was a sect outside the big tent: today, though, the DUP has become the big tent. So big, in fact, that he wants it to accommodate pro-Union Roman Catholics as well as ship-jumpers from the UUP and non-voters who might otherwise be tempted by the appearance of some new centre-right political vehicle.


Perception and selling matter in politics. What Peter Robinson is selling, is the DUP at the helm of a confident, peaceful, stable Northern Ireland. The perception he offers is that success is ultimately dependent upon a confident, growing DUP. He sells the prospect of increasing numbers of Roman Catholics buying into this perception. He sells the prospect of a shared future and sharing society being the natural consequence of his long term strategy, with the unnamed believers in a united Ireland being dismissed as a “minority within a minority”.

What Robinson was really saying to the DUP faithful and to the wider pro-Union audience, was that there was no threat to the Union and that Sinn Fein were passengers rather than partners. In other words, it is pro-Union hands which are on the wheel and determining the direction. It’s one of those very clever dog-whistle messages which combine both strength and subtlety.


Robinson, starting from the premise that there is a comfortable majority for the Union (including a significant number of Roman Catholics) wants to prepare the shared future ground by encouraging the DUP and others to become “persuaders” for the Union (something else I have argued for years).

What all of this adds up to is a move beyond the mantras of “No Surrender” and “Never, Never, Never”. It’s a bold move and it’s also a courageous move. There will be elements within the DUP, within the broader unionist family and within Orangeism who will not be happy. There will be voices cautioning him that the so-called pro-Union Roman Catholics have never voted for a ‘unionist’ party, let alone Alliance, Conservative or UCUNF. They will argue that he risks his own voter base and will also be obliged to make all sorts of concessions in the pursuit of a vote that may not even exist. And, let’s face it; those voters didn’t exactly come to David Trimble’s rescue, did they?

But as he notes there is the tetchy little problem of sincerity (or lack thereof):

The unanswered question is whether or not Robinson believes in all of this himself. Recently he talked about the need for a shared future and then the following day threatened an election if pro-British Prison Service emblems were removed. On Saturday he was back to the shared future language, albeit mingled with another defence of pro-British symbols in what he described as “British Ulster”.

It’s his use of language and the use of it by those around him (and someone should tell Sammy Wilson that his routine is embarrassing rather than funny) which could make or break his strategy. He must never allow it to be interpreted as a victory for the DUP, or even a victory for small ‘u’ unionism.

And finally:

Peter Robinson speaks for the majority of unionists, but not yet for the entire pro-Union majority. He is absolutely right, though, about the need for unionists themselves to become “persuaders” for the Union. That is now his biggest challenge and (though this may surprise him) I really do wish him well. He has the opportunity and the moment: he must not let them slip through his hands.

  • Alanbrooke

    What a shame Peter couldn’t have done this 35 years ago, when he had the chance.

  • aquifer

    Clever speech. The DUP bulldozer turning round on its tracks towards the Alliance protestors gathering in the middle of the road, crushing the UUPs wee Orange tractor still going the wrong way.

    And lots of roaring and Union flags in the crowded hall for those who may not listen to too many long sentences.

    Election time.

  • OneNI

    All misses the point: why do you need a ‘catch all’ ‘Unionist’ party. What does the DUP stand for beyond being anti SF?
    Truth is that with the Union secured this approach will not inspire voters.

  • As one commenter pointed out on another thread, Robinson is turning into Terence O’Neill. But O’Neill couldn’t deliver a shared society either, because he (or perhaps more accurately, his support base) was incapable of making the necessary compromises. And so long as a shared society comes second fiddle to communalism and the constitution, then a shared society will be a pipe dream.

    The weakness of big house unionism has always been the need to keep the ultras on board. If Robinson is to win over any significant Catholic support, he needs to make clear that he is prepared to sacrifice some of his existing base. If not, then he shows that the interests of Catholic voters will always come second to those of his hardliners.

  • Alias

    I think the DUP would have to alter their message due to changed circumstances so I’d be careful about reading to much into the new message. The former message was “The Union is in danger. Those other unionist parties are weakening it. Vote DUP to protect it.” Now that folks have voted for them, they have to alter the message to “You voted DUP. The Union is now safe. But if more of you vote for us, the Union will be even safer.” Essentialy, the scaremongering is redundant so they’re now onto a consolidation message.

    The core problem for the DUP is going to be that Catholics who are pro-Union are not by default British. The concept of Britishness is that it is a shared sovereign national identity that is formed from the four other non-sovereign national identities within the UK. The odd-man-out is the Northern Irish nation (if this post-partition identity actually exists). What seems to exist in place of it is an Irish and a British identity. Each of these identities have their own political parties that represent them and promote their interests (which, by default, conflict with each other within a single state). Without a shared identity, it is going to be impossible for a single party to grow outside its identity boundary.

    It isn’t required that a Catholic who is pro-Union should vote for a unionist party. That was only required when Stormont had the power to alter the constitutional status of Northern Ireland but it no longer has that power. As that will be decided by plebiscite and not by parliament, it is irrelevant to Stormont politics in regard to cross-community support for parties. All that is required is that unionist parties, insofar as they are British, should be careful not to exercise the powers of Stormont to the exclusion or detriment of those who are Irish.

    Two nations of roughly equal size within one state will always compete with each for control of that state. That is never going to change. But that dynamic can be manipulated by each nation to its own advantage. For example, if the Irish nation thinks that the British nation thinks that the Irish nation can be led to serve the British nation’s interest in respect of the Union then the Irish nation should let if offer whatever concessions and sweeteners it feels that it needs of offer in order to gain the support whereas it can all be set aside in a constitutional poll. That is probably what the ‘hardline’ unionists are afraid will happen…

  • Ben Cochrane

    You seem very sure, OneNI, that the Union is safe.


  • vanhelsing

    @Alias “The former message was “The Union is in danger. Those other unionist parties are weakening it. Vote DUP to protect it.” Now that folks have voted for them, they have to alter the message to “You voted DUP. The Union is now safe. But if more of you vote for us, the Union will be even safer.” Essentialy, the scaremongering is redundant so they’re now onto a consolidation message.”

    With respect I don’t think this is the message – well not the second part anyway.

    I think there seems to be a shift towards ‘parking’ the Union message – everyone knows its safe. Now its more about effective representation and ‘the vision’ of shared education. It seemed from the opinion poll in the BT that members were happy with the message.

    I actually think the challenge for Unionism in general is getting people out to bloody vote!!

  • Alias

    I don’t think we differ, vanhelsing. I’m just not convinced that making the Union more comfortable for Catholics is unrelated to persuading them to support it. It’s possible that the ‘shared future’ thing is genuine and not constitutionally tactical, but do the British and Irish nations really understand what it means? It means that the Northern Irish nation must be engineered at their expense.

  • Something is missing.
    I agree with others who point out that there is a significant portion of “Catholics” who are pro-union and I also agree that few of them will admit publicly to voting for a Party with unionist in the title. It may be different in the secrecy of the voting station.
    But fine bold words from Robinson will not gain the DUP many “Catholic votes. He need actions too, to remove longstanding irritants. He could start by taking on the OO on marching. He should point out to them forcefully that a body such as the Parades Commission is not only here to stay but is essential towards removing tensions that can lead to communal violence. The Irish language is another example. He could end the knee jerk reaction to deny any possible enhancement of its status (he doesn’t have to agree with the more extreme pretend aspirations of SF but should listen to those who do wish to use the language).
    As Andrew points out above, such actions could lose him the support of some people in his base but he has to consider whether he truly wants a shared society and weigh up the pros and cons.
    Finally (tongue in cheek) maybe he should try to change the name of his party to the Democratic Unity Party.

  • Comrade Stalin


    But O’Neill couldn’t deliver a shared society either, because he (or perhaps more accurately, his support base) was incapable of making the necessary compromises.

    The reason why Robinson is the first unionist leader to deliver heavy compromises and increase the party’s vote is quite simply because of the disciplined way the DUP is run. He had his personal Stalingrad moment in May 2010, had the devolution of justice forced out of him, and yet managed to somehow wing it, to claw his way back and deliver a poll topping victory – the DUP had their opportunity to do an O’Neill on him, and they didn’t take it. It seems clear that Robinson had endeared himself to the senior party leadership to such an extent that they couldn’t imagine the party without him.

    With the senior party under control, keeping the rest of the party disciplined is a simple matter of making it clear to people that failure to toe the party line on anything will result in their being passed over for any opportunity to stand for elected office – the DUP’s internal selection procedures are esoteric to say the least and, unlike most other parties, local associations must have their selections vetted by HQ which undoubtedly means that Robinson wields significant power in deciding who gets selected and who does not. In a number of cases, HQ even reserves selection decisions for itself. This happened in East Antrim in 2011, where three MLAs were selected in advance with Sammy Wilson being nominated by HQ at the last minute.

    My belief is that Robinson knew since the early 1990s that a deal would have to be done and that, once Hume-Adams became engrained, that deal was going to have to involve SF to some extent. I am not quite sure that he anticipated the ultimate fate of the UUP, but he certainly ensured the DUP was properly positioned to call the shots when that time came. Other unionist leaders had to push – Robbo was the first to jump.

  • ayeYerMa

    The DUP are quite correct to retain British symbols and be unashamed to mention British Ulster – this is the reality. There is no point denying reality just because Irish Republicans like to pretend that they are in a permanent state of daydreaming that there are in some distant fairy-land where it doesn’t exist.

    Actions should speak louder than words, and British Ulster should be shown to be working and to be shown the inclusive and progressive place that it is – the reality should not be something that people should be tip-toeing around naming just to appease those who wish to destroy what the DUP have pledged to make work.

    The fact that we exist should be so unashamed of and so normal and we should be so confident about it, that we can indeed tone down the flag-waving so that it is no longer the main message, but not so much that it somehow disappears altogether.

  • Mick Fealty

    CS, there’s also the reconditioning of the political game too, which other parties, including your own, we’re involved in bringing about.

    It’s unfair to compare O’Neills shortcomings with Peter advantages, since the latter’s are in part situational.

  • Comrade Stalin


    I don’t disagree.

    I would not, though, frame it in terms of shortcomings on the part of O’Neill. He was the first to try what nobody had the courage to try before. I don’t think he can be blamed because it did not work out.

  • Mick Fealty

    The Staingrad moment was Hillsborough Castle, or even before that in the five hour mega marathon meeting in Stormont. The truth is that they had a moderately strong card they might have hung onto, but for Irisgate. Whatever the personal nature of that crisis, he was forced into those policing talks on the back of it.

    Robinson was clearly serious about more than he was saying at the time when he a party colleague took ministries in the first Executive in 99. The very first moment he became publicly explicit about on the necessity of a pluralist approach was in his interview with Frank Millar in December 2002:

    “As a principle for the future, I believe you can only govern through consent and any attempt to govern without consent – and I do refer to that as being consent from both sections of our community – and I’ve argued the case over and over again that past systems have fallen because there was an absence of consent from one section of the community or another. Therefore, it follows that it is necessary to have the support from both sections of our community.”

    That’s nine years ago next week. Stalingrad was clearly not in the plan, but one of the reasons his party respect Robo (apart from all the scary Machiavellian stuff you mentioned) is because he’s at least a man with a plan.

  • Alias

    Plus, the British government having been complaining about wanting “a shared future and not a shared-out future” so Robinson has to listen to his paymaster – particularly when they were so nice about letting him set the terms of reference into allegations that he had breeched the ministerial code.

  • Methinks the union is a necessary crutch for the intellectually challenged, special needs DUP, who cannot think of ruling the province and providing for its folk without Westminster holding their limp wristed hand, whilst it leads every down their dodgy path which is pretty awful austere.

  • Something “The Dissenter” said on the thread re the DUP playing a role in helping the pro-Union fight in Scotland:

    “Its strategic and organisational capacity has been of great value to itself.”

    That is to say, not to the Union or, at leas,t not to the Union as first priority and anyway they know the Union is as safe (from a NI point of view anyway) as it is ever likely going to be. As long as their fundamentalist wing is kept under a tightish lease the catholic soft-Union and garden-centre prod demographic isn’t going to defect to the United Ireland camp anytime soon.

    Also, they know they are never going to be able to attract pro-Union catholics in any kind of number to compensate the potential of losing the ultra-prod vote so why take the risk?

    Perhaps it’s not so much what the language then, more where they are employing it?

    Robinson’s two most recent strategic (Catholics and the Union/ the state of the Union in Scotland) statements have been made to mainland UK media outlets (The Times and BBC Scotland) to an audience that is not going to go through the implications with the same fine tooth comb as they do here.

    Why would they (the Dupes) be trying to give the appearance of a new brand image in front of a select English/Scottish audience?
    A comparison of their attendance and participation record in this parliament with that of the previous one is also interesting to note. For a regional party, they are now punching above their weight at Westminster.

  • Good thread — Fealty’s glossing of Kane’s glossing of Robinson very useful stuff; and all so far not imperialised by the mindless partisans. So it devolves to me to be simplistic.

    What resounds for me (and is implicit in Turgon’s parallel thread) is “That was then. This is now.”

    Within the last year or so three big “constitutional” issues have moved on.

    The whole UCUNF thing went spectacularly belly-up, and is now FUBAR. That takes Cameron and the (intellectually and, probably, financially bankrupt) UUP off the table.

    Problems for the RoI mean that nobody can seriously address a 32-counties solution at this time, at least not inside the €-zone and under present conditions. That means the NI nationalist agenda needs restructuring — it won’t, it can’t go away, but it’s back to the drawing board. All of which improves Robinson’s moment of opportunity.

    Then the whole issue of the “Union” needed redefinition. The SNP have become, unquestionably, the Scottish mainstream. Yes, a Scottish Opposition has to emerge, and yes, it’ll probably be left-of-centre — but it will, under present circumstances, come tattooed with the Saltire. So, we can reasonably assume, and should be calculating that a Scottish referendum would deliver at least “devolution lite”.

    It’s not that the DUP and Robinson are merely ” rebranding”. For once it seems as if a bit of thinking is going on.

    Without speculating too much about the future, a thinking, open-minded NI Unionist redefines all assumptions. Shaking pillars of the Earth suddenly implies more than a Ken Follett novel in the hands of a neurodegenerative.

  • Comrade Stalin


    I guess the Stalingrad analogy does not apply so well, but what I mean is that the DUP were not out of the woods at the time of Hillsborough. The fear that Allister might be able to deprive them of seats, especially in North Antrim, never really went away until polling day was very close.

  • Comrade Stalin


    I would add that the DUP/Robinson were showing signs of constructive thinking some time before then, eg this document.

  • vanhelsing


    “I don’t think we differ, vanhelsing. I’m just not convinced that making the Union more comfortable for Catholics is unrelated to persuading them to support it”

    Alias – I’m sorry I may have misinterpreted what you were saying initially because I do agree with your statement above:)

    Purely out of interest do you think it’s a smart move?

  • PACE Parent

    OneNI has raised a most pertinent question. ” why do you need a ‘catch all’ ‘Unionist’ party. What does the DUP stand for beyond being anti SF?”.
    Since the seige is over why does unionism not provide three separate branches, left right and centre? Someone should ask Peter Robinson to answer this question at the earliest opportunity. If there were signs of constructive thinking by Robinson and the Dundela boys did any include this most obvious point?

  • PACE Parent @ 12:06 am:

    … why does unionism not provide three separate branches, left right and centre?

    Once upon a time we believed that was close to what we had. We didn’t like it. NILP was a write-off. “Progressive” unionism was strangled at birth — Londonderry lost out to Craig, as a prime example. Collectively, we pushed unionism further and further to the right. Whenever the Unionist splits came, the slice disappeared into the rough to the right of the fairway. The main Unionist cohort then sidled rightwards to cover.

    Of course there is a space on the centre-left. But, if Stalin’s (no — not our local one) “socialism in one country” was a disaster, so is leftism in one denominationally-based community. Which is why I sincerely hope Robinson’s aperturismo is more than opportunism.

  • Alex Kane ploughed much the same furrow in his Hearts and minds piece, cautioning that Robinson seems to trim and tack from one day to the next, and the other speakers at the conference felt obliged to throw some red meat to the baying hordes in the crowd who they sense are not with PR on the new touchy-feely approach to the other side. Robinson was being more than a tad disingenious in his claim in the speech that the 40 years of the troubles ‘created divisions’ implying all was fine pre civil rights. In fact, all the senior DUP figures had their attitudes to the Catholic community already formed as they would have left school probably before the outbreak. Their contwempt for catholics was in full flight before the Provos were created so it’ pushing credibility to claim that if there was no outbreak in 68/69, the Campbells donaldsons et al would have shown respect to the nationalists. We couldn’t win with them whatever we did in the sixties.