Robinson’s land ‘remarks’ part of a general decline in tone and substance in Northern Irish politics

If Peter Robinson thought he was snuffing out incessant criticism from that turbulent preacher from the unionist back benches, Jim Allister, he was surely misguided. Not least in his follow up remarks in a point of order to the effect that:

…it was “particularly sad that a member of the family wanted to buy the land and was turned down because the family decided to sell it to a republican”.

Two major aspects come immediately to mind:

  • One, his partners in government wasted no time in helpfully translating what ‘Republican’ means in this context. Sinn Féin MLA for Fermanagh-South Tyrone Seán Lynch who said the “tone of Peter Robinson’s remarks are essentially a signal that it is not okay to sell land to Catholics.” Not sure what tone he’s referring to, but anyone with reasonably deep connections to the Ulster countryside knows that ‘selling to the other side’ has been one of the deepest and darkest of the communal sins.
  • Two, whilst it is not clear who Mr Robinson’s source for the story was/is,  Mr Allister has let it be known that his wife’s brother “had made a will some years ago with then practising local solicitor, Arlene Foster.” Ouch!

It’s not the first time Mr Robinson and Mr Allister have squared off over the floor of the Assembly. In neither case has the First Minister come out of it ahead. In fact, in this case he’s getting public criticism for a remark that one person who heard it described as a journey ‘straight to the gutter’.

Mr Allister is exploiting a void that exists between the two parties at OFMdFM, who in the absence of any significant compromises over real world politics are increasingly resiling to a language their own bases understand. Ironically, one corollary of the exchange is that it paints Allister and his family as more liberal than the First Minister himself, at least when it comes to selling land to the other side.

It may be that Mr Robinson’s patience has been exhausted by the widespread public tolerance of Sinn Fein’s celebration of its own less than glorious contribution to community relations; seen by many as an insidious attempt at ethnic cleansing of Protestants from the rural west.

Whether calculated or not, with each misstep these two parties, between them, are ‘leading’ Northern Ireland back to a very nasty place indeed. The underlying tragedy is the apparent lack of competitive alternatives for the broad sweep of the NI population to choose from.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty