So he’s staying. But what will be the Robinson legacy?

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.

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  • Granni Trixie

    I trust it is not off post to say that an interesting question in itself is to ask why PR agreed to the Maze project in the first place.

    It seemed odd to me at the time and I concluded that there must be self interest though I could not work out what that was. With hindsight I wonder if he underestimated how others would view the decision when
    reality kicked in. I think this is a more likely explanation than those he gives relating to how SF has behaved. I also think that he underestimated how his physical absence would embolden his DUP rivals.

    The DUP in recent years have broadened their support base by having some leaders speak to its “moderates” and others speak to the extremes. Should the leadership be composed mainly of “moderate” DUPers obviously this threatens its appeal.

  • Charles_Gould

    The next DUP and SF leaders in Stormont will be a generation or two younger. say Sammy Wilson and Gerry Kelly.

  • Mick Fealty

    Briefly, before bed…

    Robinson is finding that he is not in control of his own legacy narrative.

    That’s partly because he’s dependent upon SF to get something/anything done.

    But also because the legacy he wants to leave may just be beyond his own personal mythology to deliver.

    SF is not playing, nor are they likely to play, any game with Northern Ireland in the title.

    But he has kept the party team together through a difficult leadership succession (which difficult task still lies ahead of SF).

    And he has all but consolidated (rather than unified) mainstream unionism under his party’s leadership.

  • Charles_Gould

    Robinson’s legacy is the establishment of a practical working relationship at Executive level between SF and DUP which involves the appearanceT of tensions but also the appearance that they can work as and when needed.

    The Economist Newspaper pointed out last week that NI has been most successful than other regions in the UK at attracting inward investment, the record over the last years is pretty good. This is important – jobs are the main “product” that Robinson and McGuinness can deliver.

    They are in New York today again doing important work.

    This kind of practical, stable, work is his legacy. Whoever takes over from just has to do more of the same; precedent is a powerful thing.

  • Gopher

    Robinson’s legacy will be a single major unionist party with around 50 Plus MLA’s which will elevate the office of first minister far and above that of Deputy first minister. In the glacial politics of Northern Ireland that will win the stalemate indefitely. SF won’t play but around thirty seats perpetually won’t keep the electorate onboard. So in effect Peters legacy is a technical knockout.

  • Granni Trixie

    Unfortunately his legacy will not include the story of how he continued the work of the GFA namely developed a coherant strategy for dealing with the past and reconciliation.

  • Morpheus

    “That’s partly because he’s dependent upon SF to get something/anything done.”

    So a few days ago we have a blog about how ‘it’s still the DUP who have the muscle to get things done’ but it’s up to SF if they can flex those muscles or not? Hmmmmm….

    PR’s legacy will be one of a hardliner who had no qualms courting the paramilitaries to get elected then saw the future of Northern Ireland as being a shared one. Once he got power he didn’t have the stones to commit to it fully and tried to keep one foot in the hardliner camp and one foot in the moderate camp – just in case.

    For me a major talking point about his career will be the notorious DUP/UUP leaflet targeting Naomi Long but the party he leads were so cowardly they didn’t even have the balls to put their party logo on it and instead tried to deny it was theirs until they were caught red-handed.

    He is a good statesman who had the potential to be a good leader for all of Northern Ireland but take his party with him and unless the Loyal Orders get what they want in the Haass talks he will have outlived his usefulness will be out on his ear.

  • FDM

    Robinson will be the last Unionist leader who actually had “significant” power.

    If he stays until 2016 he will have to make way for the first nationailst First Minister in the statelets history.

    This is the reason I doubt Robinson will hang in there until that time. I don’t know where Gopher is getting his 50 seat DUP from? Have another read of that census Gopher. 5 of the sitting UUP candidates got through on a last count at the previous outing. The DUP standing still will require all of the below to turn up for them on election day.
    1. The dissaffected fleggers who were cat-calling on Ruth Patterson to dissaociate herself from her DUP party members outside her first court appearance.
    2. The DUP voters who are not disenchanted with them causing the fleg debacle, double-jobbing, financial irregularities a la Lock-keepers/Cheap Holiday Homes/, sex scandals in a religious fundamentalist party, lack of effectiveness in government, U-turns, letter-bombs from America, weak leadership and the list extends…
    3. Those disenchanted with the DUP jumping back into bed with violent and extreme unionsm and loyalism.
    4. Those disenchanted with the DUPs lack of support for the police and law and order.
    5. Those disenchanted with the DUPs lurch to the right, who may be more naturally attracted to more inclusive politics for instance NI21.
    6. Those DUP voters who are now disproportionally dead through natural mechanisms compared to their nationalist counterparts.

    The “50 seat DUP”, which I will hold Gopher to the day after the election [mental marker], will need all of the above and an amalgamation with what is left of the UUP AND mopping up any independent unionists it can lay its hands on.

    Peters legacy will be to complete the circle started by James Craig. Literally the last Unionist to lead this little region.

    Once that Rubicon is crossed there will be no return.

    Peters legacy will be to pass on a disgraceful history of nearly a century of religio-sectarian politics, which we can then bin forever. Unionism failed to stop home rule. It failed to rule effectively from home when they were applying the home rule structures. They will fail to hold the ruling position in the home rule structures. Then we will get proper home rule. Pity about that waste of a century.

  • Brian Walker

    Mick and others,

    True, Peter’s overall legacy also depends on Sinn Fein.

    But we could all write the headlines.

    Ensuring the stability of peace and the power sharing coalition

    Leaving the Union stronger by broadening the basis of acceptance and consent.

    The first will most probably be achieved, the second possible but more doubtful.

    A third. With the support of the people, to draw the community closer together in order to promote harmony and reduce grounds for future tensions and conflict?

    While this is the logic of the cohesion strategy ,it is both ideological and idealistic. What are the realistic choices, treading the line of leading public opinion without going against the grain of it? Warm words but in reality going no further than benign apartheid? This is a fiendishly difficult subject with the best will in the world. Peter and Martin and them all have yet to demonstrate that the system isn’t entrenching sectarianism further rather than using their dominance to soften it. They haven’t even started a nitty gritty debate.

    One can see signs of effort but unionism is shackled at root by the old fear of Catholic outbreeding that is actually coming to pass. That fear appears confirmed by nationalist self confidence . Which way to face – woo Catholics in favour of the Union or try to reassure loyalists? Or formulate a new choice, based on win: win all round?

    One factor that hampers progress is over concentration on political battles already won with the other parts of unionism. So far Peter has and the DUP have failed to articulate a convincing political case for unionists to support greater integration. For SF it is less attractive anyway as they have rightly made political gains without it.

    The case is not obvious, like being against sin. It needs working at. And until both sides see that they can gain politically, integrationist progress will be very slow.

  • Granni Trixie

    Brian has put in finger on something one can overlook but it is so obvious: PR has sustained the sectarian model of politics despite glimpses occasionally that he gets it namely that the GFA raised expectation that the Executive would tackle that blight and create a programme for reconciliation. I do not consider this to be idealistic at all but merely interventions to achieve ‘normality’. But at this point I think the DUP lack the will to do things differently. Infact, that is what is wrong with the DUP and PR – a lack of will to solve or get round problems rather than that the problems are insurmountable.

  • Gopher

    As always I try to remain objective despite my loathing of the DUP

    I have studied the census long and hard and interestingly ward by ward, The census however interesting in 2010 which reflects the assembly now is totally obsolete in 2013 due to a housing bust.

    The DUP will not be 50 seats strong after the next election but the UUP squeezed by Alliance and NI 21 in one direction and the DUP from the other will be damaged beyond repair at the next. Running single candidates in many constituencies does not build party morale whereas being able to have a chance to get aboard the gravy train with the DUP is the real poiltik. Don’t believe me? Just look at those Socialists (sic) in South Belfast in a dogfight to help the working class. Such public minded people. Those public minded people also cross the sectarian and ideological and religious devide much to the UUP’s discomfort.

    Peters legacy is creating the main political party here with people of average intelligence and infantile beliefs and nobody and still lay a telling blow on them.

  • The Raven

    And yet still we seem to forget or ignore the falling numbers of actual turnouts for elections. Though I’d wager all those armchair genteel cross-community Protestants will appear back in greater numbers when the posing of the Final Question starts to emerge.

    Whether of course, the shunt of a majority nationalist assembly that is the trigger, or if it will take the border poll itself to turn them out is another question.

    Until then, Robinson’s legacy – for me, least – is the complete stasis that remains around every single problem or policy which needs solved today.

  • Morpheus

    I agree Raven but I think your point can also be adapted to read “I’d wager all those armchair genteel cross-community Catholics will appear back in greater numbers when the posing of the Final Question starts to emerge.”

  • The Raven

    Morpheus, there’s an expanding comfort zone on one side of the house that has been vastly eroded on the other. 🙂 Rat in a corner, and all that.

  • Morpheus

    Well the genteel cross-community Catholics better get back in the game if they ever want the Final Question to be asked. The SoS won’t ask the question unless he/she thinks it is likely to succeed and it won’t appear likely if they are still in their armchairs.