It’s a common tactic of most people in public life to exaggerate the criticism being made of them when they make the feisty reply. Peter Robinson is no exception. His recent output has been genuinely revealing. I have no privileged information whatever but I have read his Florida letter and his Bel Tel article. The Florida missive revealed his default position of lashing out against criticism rather than rising above it at times of tension, the Bel Tel the old trick of shooting the messenger. At least now in New York he has recovered his poise. However the earlier American missive showed Peter breaking the iron self discipline he rigidly kept most of the time down the years, when he stayed down in the engine room of the DUP, when Paisley was lashing about on the bridge and the others were the cheering crew. The rant always has had a favoured place in DUP discourse derived I suppose from hell fire sermons. The rant is how people gain release from a rage born of alienation between the world they believe exists and the world outside; in other words it is a strain of paranoia. Peter despite his considerable self-control can still fall prey to it.
Everything Peter has said about the Maze issue suggests that the reporting and comment he has attacked hit a nerve. Alex Kane who is managing the considerable feat of making unionist politics interesting makes what reads to me as an effective reply to the “windbag” attack. The story seems clear that Peter was subject to party pressure to make a U turn on the Maze but he never was under mortal threat. Small earthquake in Chile? Yes for a conventional party but just a little more than that from the DUP. What actually happened was that crack opened in the DUP monolith with Sammy voluble as ever, unable to restrain himself. Small wonder that the media seized on this rare opening especially as news management is so tight and many in the media so compliant.
Peter’s resilience is not in doubt. Who could fail to be impressed by how he bounced straight back from the loss of his Westminster seat on top of suffering intense pain and gross embarrassment? The Maze kerfuffle is a storm in a tea cup by comparison. The cancellation was a reaction to quite a rare event, the DUP responding to Sinn Fein trailing a coat too far in Castlederg after the DUP had lost control of events over the flags riots. Such is the regressive trend in politics they are now trying to reverse in the Haas talks.
Leadership in the DUP is becoming more like leadership in normal political parties. Ambition is starting to figure after a couple of terms in office and the policy of rotating ministerial office which asserts party control. This must frustrate the more ambitious and competent performers. The spectre of what happened to Peter in East Belfast for one reason might happen in some form again, for another, particularly after the flags riots centred on the constituency. Conventional political authority remains with the DUP but the power of the streets they did so much to foster in their early days has presented a certain challenge to the order of things.
In the long decades of opposition, DUP leadership was exercised by acclamation and took time to counter the image of the one man band. The party’s democratic centralism concealed most of the strains. It was the DUP’s best weapon in surpassing the chronically divided and ultimately anarchic Ulster Unionists.. Peter kept discipline through gritted teeth as he built up the party and swung it slowly towards change , young (or not so young) turk carefully keeping synch with the old guard, much like any old eastern European Communist party.
In government everything changed. The DUP were the lead unionist party at last. With their main rival vanquished they had room for manoeuvre. Remarkably and in ways which are not yet full explained Paisley the old lion turned into the sacrificial lamb and was out in a trice, just like any old eastern European Communist party chief. The toppling was more than the smooth passing of the old guard, it was a party revolution which still resonates, from leadership through faltering charisma to leadership by party bureaucracy. If the DUP seems secure there are small reminders that nothing is forever and the flanks still need guarding after all. But if the party is secure the pressures for internal change and promotion can also afford to be indulged.
Apart from basic loyalty which seems to have survived the Swish family Robinson crisis, Peter’s best defence should he need it is the lack an obvious successor. No one seems to be creating a distinctive route for the party to follow that makes them stand out. Succession is always tricky when there is no limit on terms to be served in government. Peter remains the convincing leader even if the demands of coalition government and communal dominance are sometimes at odds: together with Martin McGuinness he has shown that the contradictions are not unsolvable. And yet protecting the right flank seems vastly more important than broadening the base, despite warm words for Catholics on sharing.
It would be really gratifying the learn if he has any real strategy for the future and his own legacy, beyond keeping the show on the road. Whether he is under pressure or not, he is entering the Indian summer of his career. Retirement after 65 is hardly a disgrace. And on the other side, we wait for the old warriors to depart. I’m far from ageist but Northern Ireland looks more and more like becoming a gerontocracy, just like Craigavon’s government did. Change of the old guard to those with fainter memories of the Troubles could open the door to new initiatives. Or not, if they failed to appreciate the high cost of sectarian conflict. If there is a succession plan or any real thought of a tilt in another direction, would we ever know until it happened? Such is the state of democracy within our leading parties.
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