Peter Robinson. Strongman or wimp? The spin continues


The headline” Robinson no pushover” doesn’t really fit Henry Patterson’s measured analysis of the first minister’s U turn from Florida in the Newsletter.

..It is remarkable how weak and undeveloped the DUP case was against those who argued that part of the Maze site would house a ‘shrine to terrorism’.

The weakness of the DUP case for the Maze was amplified by the fact that apart from occasional interventions by Robinson the only other figure of substance in the party who defended the project was the Lagan Valley MP Jeffery Donaldson…..

Robinson’s defence tended to be a negative one: his UUP critics were hypocrites as the party had originally given its blessing to the project and the other critics were the ‘usual suspects’ like the TUV rejectionists. There was little concrete evidence given as to how the future visitor to the retained buildings would absorb more than a justificatory narrative about the men who died there….

Although more sympathetic to Robinson than mine, Henry’s  analysis follows much the same course.  He makes the familiar point:

The DUP political dominance within the unionist electorate and the contradictions and divisions within its main unionist opponents seems to have encouraged a complacency – ironically of the same sort that decades in power produced in the once-dominant Unionist Party.

It ( the DUP) has proven adept at the messy business of keeping the Stormont Executive on the road but its focus on the politics of power at Stormont has led it to neglect the politics of support in the broader unionist community and the simmering resentment at what many in that community regard as the republican movement’s successful attempts to hegemonise the language and concepts with which the Troubles is discussed

Why has the “republican movement been allowed to “hegemonise the language”; in simple words, to win the war of spin?  It would have been perfectly possible to have spun the surviving H block as the place where “thousands of terrorists met their comeuppance”  or some such, rather than allowing themselves to be transfixed by the hunger strike and the “shrine” idea. And then balance out the   various emotional impacts of the Maze with the conflict resolution centre.  Are unionist politicians and their spin merchants really such nice people that they don’t like to say anything critical about the dead or the class of  surviving former prisoners?. Hardly.

It is true of course that the roots of unionist objection go much deeper than the spin war. Henry quotes Peter’s s salient point:

“  If we cannot yet come to terms and reach agreement in a more general context on how to deal with the past it is improbable that in advance of that agreement , we can reach a consensus on dealing with one of the most controversial aspects of the past.”

But this can be turned in its head.  If they can’t  even talk about a basic statement at the Maze when there are so many tried and tested models to follow,  what chance is there of agreeing on  the past as  a whole?  It’s hardly an unfamiliar subject.

The U turn vividly exposes one huge omission that  hadn’t really occurred to me . Outside the professionals and the sectors  – the victims, ex-prisoners, legal campaigners, the “coalition of the willing” if you will – there has been pitifully little dialogue apart from an exchange of slogans between the people who need to talk most   I should have remembered this from the reception that greeted Eames- Bradley   .

There must be a fear now that the EU money will disappear and the wider project will be cancelled.

Anyway the spin for Peter has started already. They’ll have to do better than DUP leader played a blinder. dredged up from nowhere,    But Sammy’s account of his call to his leader is as entertaining as you’d expect.


Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London