At the next election one of most hotly contested battles will be East Belfast as the DUP attempt to take back the seat that they lost to Naomi Long in 2010. At the DUP conference, the party named their candidate to take on Long this May and he is former Lord Mayor of Belfast, Gavin Robinson.
As we prepare for the election, I caught up with the newly minted DUP candidate to get his views on the campaign ahead and his opponent, Naomi Long.
I began by asking him after all the speculation that he would be the DUP candidate for the seat how did it feel to finally have the nomination?
Robinson told me that he was very “excited” to officially have the party’s endorsement after months of speculation that he would be the candidate. The East Belfast Councillor says that the hopes to be able to use the next six months to do something special throughout the campaign and expects it to be a very hectic and busy period ahead.
I remembered back to the most recent DUP conference and the party’s huge desire to win back East Belfast, I put it to Gavin was that not a huge amount of pressure to be placed on him as a candidate?
A very relaxed Robinson told me that in reality as the party is seeking to gain the seat that “we have nothing to lose,” but pointed out that since 2010 at Assembly and Local government elections that the DUP has polled incredibly well and actually at the 2011 Assembly election polled 2-1 ahead of the Alliance party. Gavin told me that he hopes to continue to build on that support and that the party will continue to repay the trust shown in them by the people of East Belfast.
Now that he’s the candidate, what does he hope to run on over the next 6 months?
The DUP candidate told me that he will run a positive campaign explaining that he has “no interest in negatives.” Candidly he told me that there will be times when the party will have to illustrate policy differences but that for him the election will be about issues, which he hopes people can coalesce around in a positive way.
I liked Gavin’s positivity, but I put it to him that in reality this will likely become a very negative campaign in East Belfast surely?
Robinson told me that he will definitely seek to put the record straight on an issue, if his position is miss-represented but he has no interest in negative politics as he says “that’s just not me” and that if this campaign does go negative it not be because of him or his lack of willingness to run a positive campaign.
As he spoke about the campaign I was curious, what did he make of his opponent Naomi Long?
Gavin told me that he thinks that Long is a “passionate advocate” for the positions she believes in. Robinson said he has seen Naomi operate at three levels of government and that it would be “churlish” for him to say that she was a “poor politician” just because he disagrees with most of her political views.
We moved onto other issues such as Unionism. It is not impossible that after the next election, Belfast could have no Unionist MPs at Westminster; I wondered did that really matter?
For Robinson it does matter if the main city of Northern Ireland has no Unionist representation as he would like to see the city that he lives in represent the ideals that he holds himself. The East Belfast Councillor told me that it is important for Unionism to grow its message and demonstrate the importance of belonging to a bigger family.
As Gavin talked I wondered about the Nationalist residents of East Belfast, would he like Naomi commit to going into both sides of the community?
“It’s not something that I commit to do, it’s something that I already do,” Robinson told me. He said to me about he visits the Short Strand and “suspects” that he is there more often than Naomi Long is. Gavin said to me that he regularly does home visits in the area and if people get in touch for support he always represents them no matter what part of the constituency they come from.
I wanted to find out where Gavin sits within the DUP, was he a moderate member of the party?
Robinson told me that he didn’t categorise things that way. There might be differences in the way policies are expressed but that in essence the beliefs are the same. Gavin told me that in the case of Gregory Campbell for instance, he would not have expressed his views on the Irish language in that way, but he made exactly the same points about what he feels is the abuse and miss-use of the Irish language. Furthermore, he believes that an Irish language act is unnecessary and that if people want to pursue the Irish language as a “hobby” he would not stand in anybody’s way in that regard and there are public funds available for that.
As common attack that will be made on him over the next few months will be “East Belfast doesn’t need another Robinson,” just for clarification I asked him does he have any relation to his party leader?
Laughing, Robinson told me that he shares no family connection with Peter Robinson. But, he was quick to point out that East Belfast has actually consistently re-elected the First Minister on numerous occasions and that in 2011, he got more personal votes than the entire Alliance party ticket in the constituency. The DUP Councillor told me that East Belfast deserved a change at the next election and that “the last four years have been frustratingly long.” (Pun intended there I think)
What is his relationship like with Peter Robinson?
Gavin told me that he works incredibly closely with the First Minister and that he owes a lot of him as a mentor and party leader. He thinks that Peter Robinson is a “formidable” politician with a great love for East Belfast and also a sincere strategic vision for Northern Ireland.
I put it to Gavin that really has his party not diverged from the centrist shift that they had started to make in 2010?
Robinson told me that he did not think that the DUP had diverted from its basic message. He believes that if you take a look for example at Fr Tim Bartlett supporting Paul Givan’s conscience clause consultation there is some agreement across the religious divide on some issues that the DUP believe in. Gavin did say that there have been some “stumbling blocks” along the way but that the core message articulated by the DUP in 2011 of reaching out hasn’t been lost at all.
This led nicely onto Robinson’s time as Mayor and how he dealt with the flag vote in December 2012.
The DUP Councillor told me that he had a choice as Mayor did he stand up for the city or just a section of it. He spoke about the criticism he received at the time for not articulating the Unionist position on the issue and for attempting to represent the city as whole during that entire period. Robinson told me that he came under a lot of personal and public pressure to take a more assertive stance, but today receives criticism for being involved with something that he actually had nothing to do with.
When I asked him about the report released last week which put some blame on the shoulders of Unionist parties for issuing the leaflet before the vote, Robinson told me that the purpose of the leaflet as he saw it was to educate people before the vote and that the leaflet did not contribute to any great degree as the reports suggests.
Finally, I wanted to know for someone with a young family why he wanted to take on a job that involves regular travel and long hours.
Gavin told me he is “East Belfast, born, bred, battered and buttered.” This is the constituency he has lived in for his entire life and for him he says there would be no greater honour than representing his home constituency in Westminster.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs