On Robinson as leader & the limitations of his ‘slightly conciliatory’ strategy

Peter Robinson’s speech at the inaugural Edward Carson Lecture has already been the subject of one thread on Slugger, but I thought it worthwhile to provide a follow-up thread with analysis of the content and what it tells us about the thinking of unionism’s premier strategist, Peter Robinson.

But I’ll begin with a bit of a confession.

I have always quietly admired Peter Robinson. The transformation of the Democratic Unionist Party from the minority player to the now undisputed voice of unionism has happened largely on Robinson’s watch, including what was once described to me by a DUP member as the “bloodless coup” which saw Ian Paisley forced from his leadership role.

Robinson successfully courted the Baby Barrister generation of unionists who now provide the aspiring class of political leaders within the DUP and whose defection en masse to the party over the past decade has brought to the party a changed face more representative of the breadth of the Protestant/ Unionist community, a vital factor in helping former Ulster Unionist voters make the decisive electoral leap to the DUP.

In this, he has succeeded where the northern republican leadership has so far failed due to a multitude of reasons which I have outlined previously in these pages, yet which has meant that Sinn Fein continues to be distinctly unrepresentative of the breadth of the northern nationalist electorate and not as effective in their various roles at Stormont.

His eye for detail has always contrasted favourably with the approach of the republican leadership under Adams and McGuinness, who have always excelled at- and been more comfortable with- big picture politics.

In their favour, the republican leadership’s approach has been more effective in transforming the republican narrative over the course of the past 20 years so that speeches like that delivered by Robinson in Dublin are more of the norm than the exception (Declan Kearney’s recent An Phoblacht article, coupled with yet more ground paved ahead of an imminent Queen Elizabeth II- McGuinness meeting illustrating the point.)

Robinson has always lacked the charisma and personal touch which has to date enabled his OFMDFM partner, Martin McGuinness, to steal the limelight and grow disproportionately in terms of stature during the pairing’s partnership years at Stormont.

Those who caught BBC Newsline’s Friday episode would have seen more evidence of this, when McGuinness flawlessly dealt with Noel Thompson’s probing regarding why Sinn Fein agreed to spend millions on the Titanic Quarter’s flagship building in spite of the shipyard’s legacy of being a ‘cold house for catholics’ whilst Robinson simply ignored the question.

McGuinness’ willingness and ability to develop a friendship with Rev David Latimer, with all the symbolism that entails regarding the former’s status as the most senior republican figure to hail from Derry in generations and the latter’s role as a British Army chaplain and in First Derry Presbyterian Church, is best appreciated when contrasted with Robinson’s continuing reluctance to move away from the comfort zone in his own East Belfast constituency- think of last summer’s UVF attack on the Short Strand and Robinson’s foolhardy intervention weeks later in support of marching loyalists seeking to bait catholics whilst passing St Matthew’s Church.

Ironically, the tumultuous period preceding the last Stormont elections, where Robinson’s personal problems became the subject of intense media scrutiny, appears to have softened his image, with the result being the emergence of a more respected leader.

Since then, Robinson has also begun to toy with a more conciliatory vocabulary unfamiliar to unionist political leaders (and incidentally and notably, one not yet shared by his senior party colleagues.)

And so to this speech.

The speech has been lauded by supporters and some critics of Robinson on the grounds that Robinson has further elaborated upon his previously mentioned desire to open unionism up to those beyond the PUL community.

The direct reference to the cultural Irish indicates a belief by Robinson that those of an Irish nationalist or catholic background can be won over to the cause of the status quo (if not unionism) by an unspecified yet implicit ending of unionism’s war on many things ‘Irish.’

Whilst it is true to suggest that unionism holds the distinct political advantage of merely seeking to have the status quo retained into perpetuity, in reality that has been the case since Britain’s writ was established in Ireland by force and it has yet to translate into an effective political advantage, a point pressed home by Robinson’s reliance on the findings of the NILT Survey for his assertions regarding the alleged long term constitutional preferences of Irish nationalists , as opposed to the less convenient reality of voting patterns in this part of Ireland.

Robinson’s speech, before a Dublin audience including most of the political leaders of all strands of Nationalist Ireland amongst others, represented another landmark in a historic period which will in time be regarded as the era when the cracks papered over by partition, and subsequently exposed for all to see, were finally filled in by acceptance of the shared and equal status of the two traditions which, in their own ways, call this part of Ireland home.

That’s the less-travelled road that so clearly lies before us, but, from Robinson’s speech, it is clear that the logical outworkings of that remain somewhat lost on political unionism’s finest brain of this generation.

What is most notable about Robinson’s slightly conciliatory speech and strategy is how clearly it exposes the blind spot within political unionism: ie the unwillingness to find a place for and legitimise Irish nationalism within the unionist narrative. And that is important, not least because unionism’s failure to so do meant that it spurned its earlier opportunity to ‘normalise’ northern Irish society within a United Kingdom framework when gifted with the northern state from partition until the dissolution of Stormont in the early 1970s.

That is quite ironic, as the very fact that the Edward Carson Lecture is now to be an annual event in Iveagh House, Dublin clearly illustrates how more advanced along the reciprocal journey nationalists are (see Sinn Fein at the Cenotaph et al for more on this, The Presidential Twelfth and the all-inclusive approach to power-sharing at local council level across every majority nationalist council for many years.)

The fact that unionism must now share the spoils of power alongside the leading party of nationalism has further eroded the ability to devise a defining political narrative through the State’s institutions as was possible during the 50-year phase of one party dominance at Stormont, never mind one which does not seek to allow space for expression of the political identity of ‘the other.’ The new political dispensation will provide for competing narratives co-existing and being articulated from the same high office (OFMDFM), and it is in this more challenging context that any strategies- nationalist or unionist- aimed at forging new ground must be assessed.

This was clearly a speech which took time and considerable preparation.

Yet it is noteworthy how consciously Robinson betrays unionism’s blind spot by referring to the uniqueness of ‘Ulster’ (identifiably distinct?) without ever conceding that more than a third of Ulster’s populace were quite happy to be identified with the 80% majority of the population of Ireland, then as now.

Ghosts at the feast being courted should surely warrant a respectful reference.

Whilst hinting at a need to accept support from the ‘culturally Irish’ for the Union, it remains the case that this speech indicates no real shift from the leader of political unionism in terms of taking steps capable of achieving that.

For instance, does this change of tact mean Peter is now committed to supporting an Irish Language Act he once boasted of ‘binning’? Or, indeed, has he managed to dissuade his fellow party members in Belfast from continuing their unsavoury campaign opposing Belfast City Council’s Pitches Strategy aimed at rectifying the shameful historical imbalance in relation to the provision of GAA pitches across the city? And what of those cheap jibes at the culturally Irish sounding names that always go down well at DUP Party Conferences, even within 24 hours of the previous reading of Robinson’s slightly conciliatory text. And, lest we forget, will there be less faux outrage the next time ‘Nollaig Shona Duit’ is raised at City Hall?

Wanting catholics to support the Union is perfectly logical from a unionist perspective- a bit like republicans declaring their desire for a united Ireland supported by protestant, catholic and dissenter.

The ‘patchwork quilt’ for unionism reads as a call for pro-Union (or, more likely, pro-status quo) catholics to raise their voices and find common ground with the DUP as unionism’s leading voice. It’s a throwback to the earlier draft which essentially called for a shared future between unionists and pro-Union catholics, as opposed to a future shared between unionists and nationalists founded on the pillars of mutual respect and legitimacy. See Alex Kane’s exchange with myself via Slugger and the Belfast Newsletter for more on that here and here.

For obvious reasons, the distinction is significant as the latter asks considerably more of unionists in terms of accepting that the state created in their image a decade after Carson’s Covenant must be transformed into one reflective of the imagery of both unionism and nationalism.

Perhaps Robinson is warming the party ahead of this logical advance, though little evidence exists to support that contention.

Indeed, the recent actions of Robinson and fellow senior party figures indicates strong reluctance to even countenance going down *that* road. See more here, here and here.

Consider, as well, the antics of the DUP in Robinson’s fiefdom of Castlereagh Council, seeking to stifle the influence of all voices beyond the explicitly PUL in the aftermath of the 2011 Local Government elections. Never mind nationalists, shared ground in Robinson’s own bailiwick is denied even the Alliance Party.

But even more recently, political unionists have displayed the classical reactionary politics of foxhole unionism over the Siege of New Forge debacle. The behaviour of the DUP Leader himself regarding the resignation threat over Prison Service symbols a matter of months ago perfectly encapsulates the dilemma which will face a new brand of unionism which is genuinely interested in cultivating support amongst the non-PUL community.

I’ve made the point before, but it’s worth making again.

Unionists seeking to attract catholic support for the Union whilst not seeking to actively accommodate the Irish nationalist political and cultural identity are guilty of failing to learn the hard lessons of our divided past.

There won’t be any shortcut to the realisation of unionism’s dream any more than there will be a mysterious bypass uncovered by nationalists seeking to convince northern protestants of the merits of a reunited Ireland short of proving the ability to accommodate the political and cultural identity of unionism in that event.    

Robinson’s strategy has the distinct benefit of narrowing the ground for a Nesbitt-led UUP revival. It could also put the DUP in the frame to contend for liberal unionist votes currently shared between Alliance, the UUP and the Garden Centre.

But as a strategy to attract catholic voters, it’s simply one more doomed strategy premised upon a notion of false consciousness not consistent with the painful lessons learnt from the many chapters of Ireland’s post-Plantation history.

  • cynic2

    “Unionists seeking to attract catholic support for the Union ….
    one more doomed strategy ”

    …strange then that the surveys seem to show such a high % of Catholics as choosing the Union over a United Ireland?

    The problem is Chris that you start from the assumption that Robbo wants to attract more Catholics and therefore must give more to attract them. He doesn’t. They seem perfectly happy as it is and Unionism has more than enough of them to ensure no United Ireland in the future.

    I don’t say that with relish but as a simple analysis of the current position. Over time it might change – just as more Protestants might sup[port a UI. But there is no sign of that either

    I think the key in all of this is the low turn out in elections. The bottom line is that Politicians speak to other politicians and the political anoraks (like you and me) who infest Slugger.The majority on both sides of the community don’t give a damn. They don’t listen and see any political speech as a turn off. They have their own views and increasingly they don’t express them through the ballot box because they are sick of our political class and see voting as irrelevant to them – they will just get the same old set of incompetents anyway.

    And if i am honest that is all so openly, wonderfully, deliciously ordinary!

  • Dec

    “The problem is….Catholics…more than enough of them”

    Bit sectarian there, Cynic.


  • cynic2


    Sectarian? How so? Just pointing out that in repeated surveys a significant % of Catholics appear to indicate that they would vote for the UK rather than a UI. Even if there were then a Catholic majority in NI there would still be a Unionist Majority.

    How is that sectarian?

  • You’ve hit the nail on the head Chris. For Robinson, catholics should be welcomed into the unionist fold but strictly on unionism terms with no concession to any catholic/nationalist tradition in the process. This outre\ach is not really outreaching but saying, come over to our side but expect more orange coatrailing through your aresas anyway. This approach is typically meanspirited on PR’s part and even that is not shared by anyone else in his party so it’s empty of value.

  • Dec


    My point was about your selective quoting from Chris’ piece where you omitted 2 paragraphs via your seperator.

  • There is no doubt that since the 2009 European Elections, Robinson has ditched his “smash Sinn Fein” rhetoric and replaced it with a ‘charm offensive’ but is the target of this new strategy really the Catholic community?

    I am not so sure at all. I would doubt that the DUP would be able to recruit very many Catholic voters in the short term. It looks to me that Robinson was making sure that the UUP were given no opportunity to distinguish their party as a moderate unionist party.

    We may never know what kind of polical front would have opened up if the UUP had elected either McCrea or McAllister as their leader. Had they done so, Robinson’s strategy would have made it much more difficult for them to build support from a nucleus of Liberal Unionists.

  • antamadan

    Chris Donnelly: Excellent paragraph

    ‘The direct reference to the cultural Irish indicates a belief by Robinson that those of an Irish nationalist or catholic background can be won over to the cause of the status quo (if not unionism) by an unspecified yet implicit ending of unionism’s war on many things ‘Irish.’’

  • Reader

    Chris Donnelly: The direct reference to the cultural Irish indicates a belief by Robinson that those of an Irish nationalist or catholic background can be won over to the cause of the status quo (if not unionism) by an unspecified yet implicit ending of unionism’s war on many things ‘Irish.
    Robinson is right though, isn’t he?
    Has nationalism come up with any comparable plan? Not the northern parties, obviously, but maybe FG or FF.

  • “Dublin clearly illustrates how more advanced along the reciprocal journey nationalists are (see Sinn Fein at the Cenotaph et al for more on this, The Presidential Twelfth and the all-inclusive approach to power-sharing at local council level across every majority nationalist council for many years.)”

    Chris, your titanic effort is a few rivets short of a maritime picnic. You, as a SF apologist, have just holed yourself below the water-line with the Cenotaph reference:

    The visit comes after Sinn Féin didn’t attend the Remembrance Sunday service at the weekend.

    “Robinson has always lacked the charisma and personal touch which has to date enabled his OFMDFM partner, Martin McGuinness, to steal the limelight”

    It’s always a good idea to look behind the charm and the smile; when you lift a few stones you find that the SF and DUP ‘narratives’ lack real substance.

    “the blind spot within political unionism: ie the unwillingness to find a place for and legitimise Irish nationalism within the unionist narrative”

    That makes two blind spots in the constitutional tussle, not one.

  • Mick Fealty


    I agree with your point that there is no space for a single predominating narrative, though by the end of that 50 year period whatever predominance Unionism had resulted in an abject loss of any control over the narrative for another forty years.

    But Robinson, it seems to me, is not trying to play that game. In fact he’s at several things at once.

    One, he is recognising this is a competitive space, and that therefore he’s not making any proprietorial claims over the general historical narrative.

    Two, he is laying out why Unionists acted they way they did and whilst not trying to defend its tendency to gaze inward is also announcing its intention move outwards.

    In shorthand, he is telling his base, the siege is over lads. And to moderate Catholics he’s sending his *intention* to make space for them. Having the SDLP leader complain that the Taoiseach gave Robinson’s junior minister more time than him, is a useful ancillary message.

    Robbo knows that the Paisley claim that loads of Rathlin Catholics voted for them is not a claim anyone will take seriously. That said SF has a much longer way to come in, so McGuinness’s public diplomacy in Derry is not to be sniffed at.

    But they also have the tougher job, since their very presence in Stormont helps underwrite the pluralist message Robinson what’s to use and benefit from..

  • Anton

    Peter’s speech reminds me of the Terance O’ Neill ‘ Ulster at the Crossroads speech where he more or less said, treat a Nationalist/Catholic well and they will behave like any other Unionist in Ulster. There may be some truth in this for some of his targeted audience but not for the broad based Nationalist community on the Island. They are much wiser.

  • cynic2


    My understanding of the convention is that using “……….” as a separator includes all the bits in between but avoids having to paste them in.

  • Zig70

    I don’t see the narrative as anything clever. Over analyzed. Simply not understanding why you would want a UI nor seeing any wrongs in the past is no great strategy. The only thing is maybe good pr by repeating it so that it might stick.

  • ayeYerMa

    Chris – Irish Nationalism/Republicanism (in its logical definition, not the labels used by the media) is a complete irrelevance in Northern Ireland – nothing other than a deluded fantasy with a tiny zealous minority who like to shout and whinge a lot, and to whom the PC media like the BBC like to give endless attention to. The Republican movement which you support failed in their dirty little war and is owed absolutely nothing. Pandering to this deluded minority is the antithesis to a stable and democratic Northern Ireland.

  • Anton

    What exactly do you mean by a ‘complete irrelevance’ and irrelevant to whom? Certainly not to the people who vote for Sinn Fein and to a lesser degree the SDLP. Irish Nationalism in the North of Ireland has been the elephant in the living room that was ignored by the Unionists, Britain and the Republic of Ireland.History would have been different if the legetimate views, civil rights and aspirations of Northern Nationalists were taken into account in the past;instead of being seen as a ‘deluded fantasy’ of a ‘deluded minority’. The aspirations of Nationalists/Republicans deserves the same respect as those who see themselves as Unionist and British.