Last week’s spat between Peter Robinson and Jim Allister has been analysed in some detail. One of the best contributions has been by Sam McBride pointing to how it demonstrates the difference that it makes allowing ministers to be questioned without knowing the questions in advance. Prior to that as McBride says: “For years, question time at Stormont has been a fairly turgid affair, with questions submitted weeks in advance so that civil servants could draft vast replies for ministers to read.”
It was unfortunate for Peter Robinson that Jim Allister would happen to be the first one to be chosen to ask him a question but it was almost inevitable that Jim Allister would perform well in the new environment. A question and answer session with Allister asking the questions is very close to a court of law and of course Allister was a leading QC. As such for Jim Allister to get the better of Peter Robinson was fairly likely.
In the News Letter McBride further suggests that “At Westminster and most other legislatures, the performance of the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s Questions is seen as a key barometer of the leader’s performance.” Here I am not quite so sure. Latterly David Cameron’s ability to defeat Ed Milliband most of the time (though not by any means all the time) may be relevant and Ian Duncan Smith’s failure against Tony Blair certainly did him harm. However, Blair was repeatedly bested by William Hague, without that helping Hague or the Tories. That parallel is likely to be more relevant with Allister and Robinson and Allister’s superiority in debate is unlikely to destroy the DUP or Robinson’s leadership of it.
One problem for the DUP and Robinson is, however, that they, especially their Stormont team, will have long been fond watchers of Prime Minister’s Question Time. For them frequent victories at First Minister’s Questions over their unionist nemesis Allister would be great, just as defeat would be galling. Furthermore Robinson, despite his recent post Irisgate much more emollient persona, does not seem to like being defeated in anything. Whilst Robinson may now be able to be calm and accept ebb and flow of conversation as an interview style, that does not extend to the fundamentally gladiatorial style of the new assembly questions, especially not against the man he personally brought back into politics: Jim Allister.
In that context and, seeing he was being beaten by Allister, Robinson seems to have decided to fire back with a more serious put down of Allister. That would have the benefit of exposing Allister, the great opponent of Republicans, as a hypocrite. It is likely that whoever had discovered these “facts” about Allister would have thought that they might damage Allister in front of some of his most hardline supporters and “expose him as a liberal.”
In reality of course this strategy was a disaster: almost certainly the consequence of Robinson having the “facts” ready in a disorganized fashion in his mind and blurting them out before they had been going to be revealed. In so doing we discovered that the “facts” were nothing of the sort and every accusation Robinson made against Allister was simply factually incorrect. Even more damaging it made Robinson look like he was denouncing Protestants selling land to Catholics. This may well be an unspoken truth to some Prods (and likewise the other way round to some Catholics) but is not something people will publicly admit. As one of my friends put it: It sounded like Robinsons was saying “don’t do business with Taigs.” The fact that Robinson did not mean that is irrelevant. He was in a hole and he kept digging. That exchange has damaged him especially in any outreach to Catholic Unionist Unicorns: much more so than vetoing the shrine will have done.
The damage is, however, far from irrevocable: even with any unicorns who may still exist (if they ever did). Robinson simply has to go back to doing what he was doing successfully a few months ago: being Prime Minister of Northern Ireland in all but name. The flag protests may have done him damage in terms of cross community appeal and this latest episode will have been further damage. However, the simple fact is that he is much more convincing as a cross community person than Martin McGuinness. For anyone who doubts that whataboutery is the relevant response as one’s personal past and hinterland demonstrates one’s credibility in cross community outreach. In that regard Robinson may well have the grave embarrassment of the likes of Clontibret. Martin McGuinness on the other hand has the blood of Claudy, Joanne Mathers and almost countless others, if by chance none personally on his hands, then its congealing memory sticking cloyingly round his feet.
Mention of McGuinness bring us back to the people who are the main beneficiaries in this intra unionist debacle. Sinn Fein actually had most to fear from the new assembly questions regime. When they supported the change to the nature of assembly questions the DUP no doubt anticipated being able to take on and routinely defeat Sinn Fein ministers. A number of Sinn Fein ministers have already been exposed as, by turns: incompetent, nepotistical and sectarian. The ability to attack Sinn Fein’s ministers must surely have been an opportunity many in the DUP were waiting for with baited breath prior to last week’s events.
Robinson’s failure has instead handed a PR victory to Sinn Fein. SF had been in trouble in some ways. I have suggested previously that the spectacularly inappropriate rerouting by Sinn Fein of the Gabally parade to Castlederg was a sign, not of strength, but of weakness; along with Gerry Kelly’s summer of criminality reminiscence.
In the context of Sinn Fein’s almost complete failure to advance their “Liberation by 2016” nonsense and what at times looked like their tacit acceptance of partition into the medium to long term, Sinn Fein needed something to help them. Sinn Fein was always much, much better at endless negotiation rather than government. That was demonstrated on the last occasion they brought power sharing to a standstill and extracted from the DUP the devolution of policing and justice. Tom Elliott has already perceptively observed that Sinn Fein is likely to try to create a “hot house” environment in order to gain as much as possible. In this context Robinson’s mistake was particularly serious and has helped Gerry Kelly in his claims that “Stormont is in Crisis” which Sinn Fein will no doubt use to try to “hot house” the Haas talks.
As I said above, however, this episode is not a vast disaster. It has put Robinson onto the back foot. He would be wise now to apologise formally to Jim Allister and then simply proceed as before. This spat will likely be forgotten shortly. A week is a long time in politics and this incoming week Jim gets to ask a question of McGuinness.