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.