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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  • Greenflag

    He’ll muddle through for a couple of years yet -thats a forecast not a prediction theres apparently a difference .Reports of his political demise have been greatly exaggerated . FFs let the poor man have his holliers -I mean who would’nt want to escape from Stormont for the sunshine at least once or twice or several times a year 😉

    There is no heir apparent at this time . It’ll be an important decision and probably best not to have it forced on the party following a messy leadership resignation or forced exit .

    I note SF are not calling for his resignation .They must know something no?

  • It looks messy already. Sammy Wilson could have said “Peter’s our leader and not going anywhere – we don’t need to discuss this”. Instead he was cross enough – or coy enough – to engage in conversation about the leadership.

    SF calling for his resignation would shore up the DUP troops. it would become personal again. They’ll stay out of the political machinations. Imagine if SF backed a candidate: it would be the kiss of death!

  • Comrade Stalin

    I have no doubt that Sammy is trying to replace Robinson, although I’m not sure whether or not he sees himself as the replacement. I thought it was interesting that he showed up at Ruth Patterson’s hearing today.

    Arlene Foster is ex-UUP which counts against her in the DUP; and she may well be sheltering under Robinson’s wing to some extent.

  • Greenflag

    Poots was there too providing ‘moral ‘ support . Perhaps they’re both going to support Ruth Patterson for the leadership :)? At least she speaks her mind albeit without opening it and in default mode 🙁 . If they’re going to have a wee woman as leader and lay the accusation of misogyny against the DUP to rest -this could be the time. They could be the third party in these islands to have a female leader following the Tories’s Thatcher , the SDLP’s Ritchie and just imagine the DUP’s Ruth Patterson .

    Who said Sarah Palin ? Not I said Arlene . Not to worry SF will be more than able to outpolitic any of them simply by doing nothing much :(.

  • Comrade Stalin

    They show up in court to support their members accused of charges but run away in terror when their members obtain illicit sports massages.

  • David Crookes

    I know it looks farcical, but in fact the high-powered DUP supporters have shown that RP’s sinister individuality is part of a much more sinister generality. The DUP bigwigs must see more votes in fascist lunacy than in civilized decency.

    Does PR back RP? Or is there any difference between them? It would be nice to know.

  • Gopher

    If one may speak objectively for a minute.

    Simon Hamilton replacing Sammy Wilson makes a lot of sense strategically. Strangford will be one of the most competitive constituencies in the next election and the DUP will not want to lose a seat but certainly believe there is one up for grabs. Raising Hamiltons profile makes sense to me when the DUP will have to contend with
    McNarry and Nesbitt and whatever NI 21 throws at them. Not an idle threat as East Down has a long history of Liberal Unionism.

    The only thing 2011 proved is 38 seats can cover a lot of sins in a power sharing executive without opposition.. Sammy might not like it but they have his back just as much as any other DUP member including Peter. The DUP seen what happened to the UUP and no one will want to lead a broken party. So when the DUP dig in like now reports of their demise or Peter’s are wide of the mark.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Gopher,

    The decision to replace Wilson with Hamilton dates back to the start of the current assembly term, and certainly predates the fallout between McNarry and the UUP. At the time it was justified as part of the DUP’s rolling back of double jobbing but it may well also have been Robinson creating new allies and rewarding loyalty.

    I have a lot of respect for Hamilton and I’d say he’s more capable than quite a few of the other ministers around that executive table – but he isn’t politically experienced in the way Wilson is.

    What’s that about East Down and liberal unionism ? McNarry is one of the most hardline unionists in the assembly except for Jim Allister. Nah, those two DUP seats are rock solid. But the seat’ll could get very interesting if the SDLP manage to get the finger out.

  • @Alan,

    I think you are probably right about a pairing of Foster with Dodds as the replacement is the best and most likely expedient in the short term. The most able would then become the eventual successor. If one looks at Soviet successions during the 20th century they consisted of an immediate successor or collective team followed by the eventual successor: Georgi Malenkov after Stalin’s death followed eventually by Khrushchev, the collective team of Brezhnev, Kosygin, and Podgorny after Khrushchev’s overthrow, and Andropov and Chernenko as interim successors following Brezhnev’s death until Gorbachev became the eventual successor.

    Unfortunately there is no real tradition for this in the DUP and no clear pattern in the UUP. And even if there was a clear pattern in the UUP, the DUP would be unlikely to imitate it.

  • Gopher

    Kieran McCarthy polled second in the constituency making the quota whereas McNarry scrapped home, are you going to tell me no Liberal unionist voted for Kieran? The DUP lost a seat from 2007 in 2011 to the UUP reducing their MLA’s to THREE. A “rare case” in those elections

    Turnout in Strangford was 48.5% and Im guessing that the remaining 51.5% are mainly quite liberal and quite unionist. it must be noted they had no banner to rally round round. If NI 21 can tap into those liberal unionists McNarry, Nesbitt, Kieran , DUP and SDLP have a fight on their hands.

    Hamilton polled the least of the elected DUP MLA’s so a giving his profile a leg up is sensible.

    As I have said before voters in the area aren’t like the sheep elsewhere so it is sensible for the DUP to give themselves every chance and make sure if a radical liberal unionist pops up its at McNarrys, Nesbitts or Alliances expense.

  • Alan in Belfast[7.28] If Sammy took the top job, they would have a problem at conference time as they’d have to put someone else in charge of the red meat bucket to pander to the hordes, Gregory? Can’t see it. Sammy has blotted his copybook by turning up to back Ruth. How can he critize SF for Castlederg insensitivity after that? Foster isn’t big on personal responsibility as the Presbyterian Mutual scandal showed. She accepted her dept had been asleep at the wheel, but took no blame herself. The rest of the DUP rabble are even less fit for office than those two.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Gopher, I think there was probably some sort of Nesbitt effect as well as an Iris Robinson effect. McNarry has had a seat in Strangford for a long time. And Alliance only ran one candidate.

    If I was going to predict someone taking a seat there it would be the SDLP.

    Agreed that NI21 could win a seat here but they would have to blitz the constituency with workers and canvassers – and they’d have to run a good candidate. This is what I always thought NI21’s problem would be, they don’t really have either.

  • babyface finlayson

    If there is one thing I’ve learned from Derren Brown, it’s the power of suggestion.
    When Sammy Wilson uses phrases like ‘not weak’ and ‘not indecisive’ about Peter, I’m sure he knows that people don’t register the ‘not’. Pop psychology.

  • FDM

    The calvalcade of the DUPers surrounding Ronseal Ruth at the magistrates court yesterday is a sign of those worried about their positions on the gravy train.

    I did notice the street loyalist presence there clamouring for Ruth to disassociate herself with her DUP hangers-on.

    It seems that the electoral troubles I predicted for the DUP are coming to fruition. Have the mob actually turned on the DUPers? Is that why Wilson, Poots and co. were rubbing shoulders with Ronseal so that her mob-Musk might rub off onto them?

    Methinks the mob are so-spooked that it won’t be enough.

    Peter to go and the DUP lurch to placate the lowest common denominator? Looks like it.

    Ronseal to move to the TUV? Ronseal for the lead seat in the DUP, any takers? It would be madness, but if the mob are in control on the streets, why not in DUPer HQ? Probably Wilson though and a leadership by the emperor with no clothes.

    I agree with the article when it suggests Robbo can recover. However I do not think he has the spirit for the fight anymore. Unionism is a losing battle, so he might just be saying to himself “what is the point?”. I doubt Trimble regrets legging-it.

    Peter is ready for the pot.

  • streetlegal

    I wouldn’t write Robinson off just yet. Within the DUP a ‘Stop Sammy’ campaign is beginning to get some traction.

  • Salvo

    FDM There are some good points you make, My opinions are quite firm on the issue of Mr Robinson. He will be gone sooner rather than later. He will have spent a very long time and given much thought to stepping down, it certainly wont have been decision arrived at on a whim nor on the back of pressures over this hot summer.

    What unionist would want to be leader of a party which has to enter into the upcoming Richard Haas talks, knowing (as they will), that it is to be another mechanism for further change in pursuit of issues surrounding the equality agenda.

    Given the evidence of events on the streets of Belfast and across the North, few will believe that those involved in manufacturing trouble will be in any mood or position to concede more ground on what they percieve as attacts on their traditions/culture.

    Mr Robinson knows what is what in this place, he understands more about what he wants to be remembered for in the long term rather than short. I am sure like most of us, he has regrets about things in his past that now have left him, in some peoples veiw as (compromised). Whatever is to come from the Haas project, it will not be signed of by Peter Robinson. So in this volatile atmosphere, who want to be the new Lundy/O`Neill.

  • FDM

    I was always struck by this quotation from economist John Kenneth Galbraith on the Essence of Leadership

    “All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.”

    The whole succession of Unionist leadership going back to the 60s have NEVER successfully confronted the main fear of their people head on. If they sally down this road they are immediately Lundied, marginalised and unceremoniously removed from power. The latest effusion of angst in the sequence is simply the same community lashing out in anger at the grievance (real or imagined) of their “predicament”.

    That predicament is that they are trapped on an island with 5 millions plus of ‘themmuns’.

    When Cortez arrived at the new world he burned their ships in a statement that they were “there to stay”. Leadership, if you will pardon the pun.

    If the PUL community are for staying, then they better start making themselves comfortable where they live, rather than wringnig their hands and staring misty-eyed across a sea to some field that was never greener in the first place.

    That PUL community needs a leader who can turn around to them and be brutally honest in his/her appraisal of the situation.

    “The Union goose is cooked. Our only option is to make a success of this island and our part of it.” says the leader.

    It will never happen though, as the PUL community is determined to fall to a defeat rather than a negotiated end to hostilities.

  • FDM[2.27]’That predicament is that they are trapped on an island with 5 million plus of ‘themmuns’
    As prince Hamlet said ‘there’s the rub’. It’s not politic for them to admit that their aversion to the majority is they are catholics so they choose to label their objections as the political dogma of ‘themmuns’ and justify themselves thus. In 1920 in the nine county Ulster, there were 43% of catholics, so unionists decided theywouldn’t reach the 1950s with NI consisting of that margin of majority so the border was drawn to fit. We are now at a point in the statelet’s history which no unionists younger than a hundred has had to deal with in demographic reality.
    Uncharted territory for us all.

  • Streetlegal[12.13] as another commentator has pointed out, Wilson doesn’t have the gravitas and out of the field regularly touted, that leaves Foster as the only other serious contender, but she wouldn’t attract many nationalists to support a new SF/DUP set up. The ‘others just aren’t serious people.

  • FDM[12.10] ‘Ronseal to move to the TUV?’ If Jim’s ego could stick it, he might be persuaded by other tuvvers to give the leadership of the party to her without contest to avoid embarassment to him. What a mess they are all in, Couldn’t happen to a more deserving bunch. First class entertainment for nationalist voters.

  • A number of people have now referred to Patterson as ronseal. I had to google it and see that it might originate with her tan and Ronseal Wood Stain.
    If so, it’s totally disrespectful and very childish playground behaviour. Ad hominem woman playing.

  • SK

    “If so, it’s totally disrespectful”

    ____

    Why should anyone have any respect for that idiot?

  • Because she’s a human being, albeit one with significant challenges.

  • babyface finlayson

    Mister_Joe
    “childish playground behaviour. Ad hominem woman playing.”
    Absolutely right. Not only is it puerile, but silly comments about a persons appearance only weaken the arguments about her attitudes and behaviour.
    And in Patterson’s case there is more than enough that is objectionable about her behaviour and attitudes without resorting to that nonsense.

  • Tir Chonaill Gael

    Orange Roof: in mindset and appearance.

  • Gopher

    CS. Strangford is an interesting constituency one which never ceases to dumbfound the experts. The SDLP myth in 2007 has skewed peoples thinking somewhat.

    Anyway again objectively speaking Peter and the DUP are now in full election mode and I expect after the Haass talks fail they will move for an election in the spring. The prize now for the DUP is the final destruction of the UUP, the only ponderable is how many seats NI21 will pick up from the debris. The net result will be the DUP will have another ministry and likely merger.

  • Tir Chonaill Gael

    They’ve just recently voted to prolong the assembly by a year, until 2016 – so why would the DUP now manoeuvre for spring 2014 elections? The UUP have bottomed out – I’m not saying that they’ll stronger any time soon, but it’s the likes of B. McCrea, McCallister and McNarry that have most to worry about. Agnew may also be vulnerable in N. Down.

    Similarly, the SDLP bottomed out a few years ago. A 2014 election would see just a handful of changes from 2011, though turnout may struggle to stay above 50%.

  • Gopher

    Objectively speaking once again

    The UUP are sitting last in practically every constituency, they have no personalities left. The DUP have them squeezed from the right N121 from the left. One more election defeat and the UUP will fall to pieces. To me personally it is a no brainer to finish the UUP before the next set of elections and before NI 21 can get off the ground.

    The Assembly is in stalemate and the Haass talks have not got a snowballs chance in hell to break it. The DUP have taken a few knocks and sitting their continuing to take them will make them look weak. Upsetting SF’s 2016 timetable by calling bluff after bluff will keep them on the front foot.

    The UUP and SDLP vote has far from bottomed out its just a question of how many cease voting and how many will vote for other parties.

  • Neil

    The only bluff the DUP have called lately was their own when they realised they didn’t have the stones (or honour) to stick to the MLK development. It makes welching on an agreement sound courageous – call their bluff. There was no bluff to call and if the Shinners give them another shaft opportunity then they deserve to be mauled at the polls. Sadly Mick’s called it. We were going nowhere before and things just slipped into reverse.

  • Gopher

    So if the DUP put forward a motion for an election will SF support it?

  • Neil

    I don’t know, I would if I were them.

  • Morpheus

    Why? What is in it for SF to hold an election when they can sit back and watch the unionist vote split even further and the SDLP slip further into obscurity?

    The objective for SF in the next election should be to get 1 more seat in the Assembly so they can have their own petition of concern without the need to rely on anyone else. If they become the biggest party and MMcG gets First Minister then that’s a bonus, if they don’t then it’s not the end of the world.

  • Gopher

    Yup it would look pretty cowardly to refuse. There would of course be certain risks for SF some practical some more visual. But I agree you would look weak to refuse especially when you had to go grubbing round the SDLP to get the votes needed to block the motion.

  • Neil

    Personally thinking the FM post is up for grabs, Unionism is (I reckon) at a very low ebb, and we’ve seen Peter come back before. Between the fleg people and the garden centre types I suspect the DUP will lose voters. The Shinners are steady as she goes, and they can campaign for the FM post. Is there a rule prohibiting Kelly for Justice Ministry?

  • Comrade Stalin

    Daniel,

    I see where you are coming from but it does not work like that. The DUP are a tightly-knit, cliquish bunch and they don’t like to see their representatives being knocked about. Sammy’s attendance is a signal to the party faithful that he isn’t about to take any crap and is relevant when considering the possibility that he has ambitions of some kind for the leadership; either to hold it, or to influence it. As someone considered to be on the moderate/constructivist wing of the party Sammy is anxious not to be seen to be throwing to the wolves those lower party members with whom he might disagree on certain issues.

    Sammy is in many ways a classic maverick. He is popular generally and also very popular across the DUP – his East Antrim Westminster seat is one of the safest of the Westminster seats from all comers including the TUV and he will hold it for as long as he wishes. I’ve met him a couple of times. In person he combines of a kind of blokeish, humourous demeanour with an analytical and sharp mind as well as the ability to talk like an uncompromising hardliner when the situation demands it. He has a fearsome reputation as a constituency worker and as an effective and competent minister.

    In terms of the differences against Robinson .. Robbo would have much less personality and I sense he doesn’t really have a sense of humour. But I’d say they both see eye to eye politically almost all the time, at least until recently. Robinson is very much a details man, I think he probably takes a close interest in the organization of the party all the way down. Sammy is probably more the sort of person who would delegate a lot.

    It still seems weird to think of Wilson as the leader. Robbo cuts the statesman thing quite well, and I think Dodds would (if he wasn’t so intransigent) but it’s hard to picture Wilson. The one thing that counts against him is his personal life. There is nothing remotely controversial there for normal people but the batshit crazy Free P wing of the party probably disapprove quite strongly.

  • Gopher

    Objectively speaking of course because hand up SF are as loathsome as the DUP in my opinion.

    Nope the FM post would need unionism to collapse and I dont think anyone in the DUP is going to stick his neck out like Trimble. So the reality is like Morpheus says the magic thirty seats. The first minister thing is just for turnout purposes.

    I dont think there is a rule forbidding Gerry Kelly being justice minister but objectively speaking once again if your after falling unionist turnout I would keep Gerry Kelly hidden as much as possible until your in a position to make him justice minister.

  • Comrade Stalin

    I think the prospect of either a unionist or a nationalist justice minister is further away than at any time in the past. On one hand you’ve got a party (hell – parties) who call people out onto the streets and they end up attacking police lines. On the other hand you’ve a party who show up at IRA commemoration marches. Neither would be credible.

  • Gopher

    What way is a justice minister blocked as a matter of passing interest? petition of concern?

  • Comrade Stalin

    Justice minister is elected by a majority of nationalists and unionists, so both sides have a veto. That effectively means at present that the DUP and SF by themselves control who the minister is. Neither will allow the other to do it.

    Back when Ford was done I think I expected that there would eventually be a time when DUP and SF could do some horsetrading and agree a candidate. But that day is even further away now than it was then.

  • Comrade Stalin

    “done” ? Elected, I mean. Time I got some sleep.

  • Charles_Gould

    CS is that “majority of unionists and nationalists” arrangement due to run out, or does it continue until some alternative system is agreed?

  • Comrade{10.53] I appreciate that detailed response so thanks. Mostly my posts here are ignored. Talk about living in interesting times, eh? I’m off to Dylanfest in Moville tomorrow, being from north Co. Derry.

  • @CS,

    “The one thing that counts against him is his personal life. There is nothing remotely controversial there for normal people but the batshit crazy Free P wing of the party probably disapprove quite strongly.”

    Yea, I can’t see the Free Presbyterians accepting “streaker Wilson” as leader any more than Sinn Fein accepting a pacifist as party leader.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Charles,

    The appointment system is specified in Schedule 1, Part 2 of the the Northern Ireland Act 2009. There is no expiry or time limit.

    The British can amend this legislation at any time although in practice they would only do so if there was agreement or consensus which at this point means a deal between the DUP and SF.

    Daniel,

    No problem 🙂 Enjoy Moville .. and be sure to call into Muff on your way there.

  • Play the ball not the woman. Less of the attack on personal appearance.

  • Charles_Gould

    That’s very interesting Comrade Stalin, I didn’t know that. Thanks. I have a feeling, like you say, that it will not be changing for a while.

  • Charles_Gould

    Wilson is a great speaker, and is intelligent and confident enough to have his own views. He also seems to have been pretty competent and had a sure touch in most things he has done. I think they’d like him as leader, when the time comes. They can always go for Arlene after that; they’re in a good position to have quite a number of viable choices.

  • Comrade Stalin
  • Padraigin Drinan

    Mister_Joe
    I understood that Ronseaal Ruth did not relate to her appearance.
    The ad for Ronseal says “Does what it says on the tin”
    It was my understanding that the name came because Ruth Patterson was more inclined than others to speak as she saw things. I could be wrong. I waited for someone else to come up with this explanation, but as no-one has I will put it forward.