Is Peter Robinson’s leadership goose cooked?

In his annual self-imposed Florida exile, Peter Robinson must be increasingly frustrated as he reads newspaper articles and blog posts on his iPad, and listens to radio clips discussing the expected end of his political career up on the hill. So far he’s shown self-control and avoided stabbing at his Twitter app to respond.

Brian John Spencer cartoon of frustrated Peter Robinson with ipad

It’s been a long summer for the First Minister at home in Northern Ireland, with two recalls of the Assembly, trouble flaring up in North and East Belfast around the Twelfth, the World Police & Fire Games to attend, amongst his duties in the off-season.

A long summer and a long year of the DUP being the story rather than leading the news and policy agenda:

  • the ill-judged leaflet and the following flag protests that weren’t always influenced by the DUP representatives who attended;
  • the Unionist Forum has become an ill-fitting and ineffective sticking plaster;
  • the coordinated campaign from Downing Street, NIO and the White House to put a shared society back nearer the top of the Executive agenda;
  • ministers Poots and McCausland have been under pressure and in the spotlight with care home closures, Red Sky, SPADs;
  • Ruth Patterson’s online comments were an embarrassment (and a distraction);
  • Nigel Dodds sustained an injury while loyalists rioted at the Twelfth in North Belfast.

Dissent across the wider unionist/loyalist community over the potential character of the Maze peace centre were countered with elaborate DUP messaging that eventually could no longer be sustained externally, never mind internally within the party.

By no means have the wheels fallen off the DUP wagon, but the horses are certainly moving at different speeds in different directions. The corridor between the offices of the First and deputy First ministers seems to have lengthened. Control and loyalty has been lost and talk is of a change of DUP leadership by Christmas.

Peter Robinson can do comebacks. But this one’s going to be more difficult and a lot more spectacular if he pulls it off. Previously he has been personally weakened, but this time he’s politically weakened. Party members’ love and loyalty covered family matters and personal attacks, but seem less likely to forget or forgive the need for a U-turn on the Maze.

Eamonn Mallie thinks that Peter Robinson can recover.

The DUP leader’s survival now depends on his falling into line with the hardliners. Up and coming elections will shape everything from herein.

But with the normal party discipline gone, short of a clear statement this weekend from the leader to clarify his grip on the party reins, others think that his exit will be before elections. It seems to be a matter of when rather than if Peter Robinson will be resigning as leader, First Minister and MLA.

The odds of Richard Haass’ talks concluding by the end of 2013 must be low and a moment of cross-community agreement isn’t the time to spotlight a single party. Time is running out for Peter Robinson to secure a legacy based around educational reform and integrated shared education. While ESA have interviewed for board members, political and community agreement is still absent. His other legacy aspiration of widening the appeal of a moderate unionism is lacking: Catholic unionists are still thin on the ground and unlikely to be attracted to unionist parties – rightly or wrongly – fixated with flags and parades.

Local government reforms seem further and further away from being implemented. The chances of shadow council elections being held before the summer along with the European elections are now slim. Even the social welfare reform legislation that parties are desperate to tweak for Northern Ireland has become protracted.

Handing over the DUP leadership at the party conference would be much more natural. For the last couple of DUP conferences in La Mon Hotel, it’s as if Peter Robinson could have walked into the ballroom and up the aisle and started to read nursery rhymes from the stage and he would have been lavished with adoration, warm applause and flags waved by loyal party members and elected colleagues. It would also be a good moment to shuffle the party’ remaining ministers.

For all the bluster and early publicity, the electronically-luddite yet economically-adept Sammy Wilson does not have the gravitas to be party leader or First Minister. The party will need a good reason not to build on Arlene Foster’s solid and dignified performance as interim First Minister. Perhaps a double act with Nigel Dodds leading the party from Westminster and Arlene in Stormont? (A bit like the Gerry/Martin double act in Sinn Fein!)

The DRD minister will be able to hand Peter Robinson his Senior SmartPass on the 29 December this year, but if he does pull out of Stormont can you really see Lord Castlereagh donning an ermine robe and settling down into the red seats in the House of Lords?

I don’t think it’s likely that Peter Robinson would run for Europe alongside – or instead of – Diane Dodds. The non-DUP unionist vote (UUP, TUV/UKIP, NI21) would need to shrink a lot to allow the DUP to squeeze in a second candidate. Though the transfers and eliminations would make the STV election count a fascinating spectacle.

Outside of elected politics what can a former party leader with plenty of remaining energy do?

With the DUP supporting the Better Off Out campaign, a pro-EU role is out of the question. The DUP’s opposition to the Good Friday Agreement damages his chances to become an international peacemaker.

Financial institutions, and UK insurance and property companies might offer some board directorships? The NI Human Rights Commission are looking for a chief commissioner … nah!

Deputy leader since 1980 and party leader since May 2008, American universities might be keen to share Peter Robinson’s insights into political strategy and party management?

What could a former DUP leader do?

Cartoon by Brian John Spencer.

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