Upon retirement from the Assembly, Peter Robinson “might try my hand at something other than politics”

Peter Robinson was interviewed by Alex Kane recently for a piece that appeared in the News Letter. [I still don’t think the First Minister and DUP leader has “found time” yet to talk to the Irish News.]

The audio of the interview was run on Lisburn’s 98FM On the Record politics programme today. You can listen to the interview in two parts and the full transcript is available on the News Letter website.

On working with Martin McGuinness as deputy First Minister:

I suppose it’s worthwhile pointing out where I come from in terms of these kinds of issues. My entry into politics came as a result of a friend being killed by the IRA. Therefore I look across the chamber at people I recognize were involved in the murder of my friend–whether that’s because they were involved in that organization, or the leadership of that organization. That does make the relationship, obviously, much more difficult.

I have to say though, having reached a situation where we’re trying to bring peace and stability to Northern Ireland, and having dealt with a number of other Sinn Fein leaders, I think it would have been impossible to have the working relationship I have with Martin McGuinness with any of the others.

I think undoubtedly he has no intention of going back to war; he does genuinely want the process to work. I don’t minimize the fact that he wants it to work as a step towards a different goal than I would have. However I think I’m winning on that front because the clear evidence of the additional support for the Union is there; and a stable Northern Ireland is a Northern Ireland in which it will be much more easy to convince people to remain in the United Kingdom.

… I cannot imagine that the process would have worked—or certainly would not have worked as well as it has (and I put that in inverted commas!) if it had been Gerry Adams that had put himself forward as First Minister or Deputy First Minister.

On what he means by a “shared future”:

Well, first of all, there is something of a difficulty in accepting a concept where we work together in government to govern Northern Ireland but we cannot agree on the past and we are not agreed on the ultimate future, for that obviously provides limitations on what you can do. But we are agreed that the future should be decided by democratic means alone. And on that basis I’m comfortable.

In terms of the shared future–I suppose it is the normalization of societal relationships that I’m talking about there. Where people can interact and there should not be distinctions in terms about where you can go and who you can play with on the basis of their religious or political background. So to some extent it’s a–I suppose you could call it an integrated future: where our schools could be integrated, where our social lives would be integrated, housing would be integrated. All of those things would happen.

I’m just a pragmatist in politics. I don’t think you can go from where we are to where we want to be in one step.

Alex Kane asked Peter Robinson about October 1987 when he “resigned as deputy leader of the DUP for three months”.

[Alex] You’ve never really talked much about that. Some people say it was because you were pretty unhappy with the response of Ian Paisley and UUP leader James Molyneaux to the Task Force Report. [This was a joint UUP/DUP report in the aftermath of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement written by Robinson and Harold McCusker and Frank Millar of the UUP.] It has been suggested to me that you, Millar and McCusker were arguing that the unionist parties should engage with your political opponents and look at power-sharing structures: and that you were so miffed with the response of the leaders of both parties that you walked away.”

[Peter] It wasn’t an issue of whether we would negotiate with our political opponents at that stage, but whether we would negotiate with Her Majesty’s government. I always took the view that if you wanted to bring down the Anglo-Irish Agreement (as it was at that stage) you either had to do it actively on the streets by way of a full-blooded campaign of opposition or else you have to negotiate it out of existence.

It became evident to me that we were moving past the stage where the activity on the street was likely to lever any change. In my view and in Harold’s and in Frank’s you negotiate from a position of strength not weakness so that meant that we needed to get into negotiations while there still was an active presence and protest on the streets in order to affect change, rather than for that to peter out and then for us to enter negotiations from a position of weakness.

[Alex] But you returned to your post as deputy leader…

[Peter] Yes, when they opened up discussions with the government.

The DUP leader was asked about his vision for attracting Catholic votes, perceptions around the Unionist Forum and whether there was still a role for the UUP.

I think there’s obviously a view within unionism that wants to have diversity and wants to have the offer of variety and to that extent I don’t seek to deny anyone the opportunity to vote for a candidate who has whatever the particular attributes the Ulster Unionists may have. The one thing I’m certain is the Ulster Unionist Party is past the phase where it will be seen as the voice of unionism in Northern Ireland. It will not be able to provide the kind of strong unionist bloc that is needed to be able to deal with the republican agenda. But we will work with the UUP and indeed with any other unionist party to further unionist ideals. But the system we have at the moment requires us to be able to have a large unionist presence in order to ensure that we have the maximum number of seats in the Executive and we hold the First Minister’s office.

On reaching the stage of his political career when he would be “looking back and thinking about your legacy”:

When I stand down from politics isn’t so much governed by the calendar as governed by the progress that we make on certain issues. There are certain things I want to see happen and I hope can happen while I’m still in leadership of the party. From the point of view of the Union I want to see the Union much more strongly cemented and that means cemented with support right across the community. We’re making good progress on that but I think the unionist community has to recognize that they need to be marketing the Union on a basis that makes it attractive to those outside the Protestant community and that’s something that I think we’ve all got a lot to do in the months and years ahead.

In terms of Northern Ireland, again there are reforms which are still needed within the process. I want to ensure that we do have stable political structures. When I came into office the papers were all writing up articles on a daily, weekly basis about how long the Assembly might survive. They were justified in writing them in my view at that stage because there were all sorts of difficulties that were being faced. But nobody’s talking about that now. Everyone recognizes that the Assembly is here and while we will undoubtedly have problems in the future none of them are seen to be so insurmountable that they are going to bring the structures down. But again I’d like to see further reform. I’d like the issue of Opposition dealt with and the aspects of the Assembly’s role that need to be improved.

I want the DUP to be in good, if not better shape than it is at the present time for such a handover. Some of those blogs you’re talking about talk about us as if we’re hanging onto office and power as something that’s just desirable and self-fulfilling. But the reality is that it’s hard work. There are a lot of easier things in life to be doing and I look for the moment when those three issues are in a line and that makes it easy to hand over. But it’s very much governed by the progress that’s made in those areas because those are the issues that I’d want at the end to be able to say “the Union is in a stronger place, Northern Ireland is more stable and the party is better than it’s ever been.”

Asked whether he had a future in the House of Lords:

In terms of the House of Lords I’m not sure—maybe I might try my hand at something other than politics …

When there was a lot of talk about the salaries of MLAs and so forth were I did make the comment that on two occasions over the last number of years I was given offers to go into private business at a significantly more lucrative salary than I’m getting at the present time. So for me politics isn’t about money. I would get much more money outside politics.

I can’t see my retirement being one where I sit with a blanket over my knees and watch cricket on television (enjoyable though that might be). I’d still want to be involved in projects and doing something that keeps my mind active. Rather that’s business or being a political commentator—who knows what the future holds.

On NI21, is there need for another party? Isn’t Peter Robinson already offering “a pluralist, moderate party”?

I don’t think that they’re offering any product that’s unique, therefore it’s going to be very difficult for them to carve out a market for themselves. There are elements of their programme which might be more closely attuned with what the Alliance party is offering and other elements which are not that different from what the UUP is offering and indeed other elements which are not much different from what we are offering. There’s a very narrow part of the market that they’re trying to get. You do need to base a political party on having identifiable talent and effectively the DUP has sucked all of them in from the UUP, Conservatives and so on. We have an offering which goes well beyond what any other political party can provide.

The interview was recorded before the G8 summit – but I don’t think it’s been discussed before on Slugger and I’m sure you’ll all have opinions.

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