The northern Irish media have been camped for so long on Peter Robinson’s lawn that there will be very few people left when he eventually does retire from politics who cannot say they hadn’t predicted it already (and in some cases, long long ago).
In yesterday’s Irish News Newton Emerson has written something of a valedictory (just in case he is actually going to go this time). It’s a fittingly unsentimental account for such a cold fish of a politician:
Robinson might never have professed his love for Catholics, while his belated attempts at outreach have veered from the cynical to the patronising. However, his long record is devoid of the hateful anti-Catholic statements that can be cited against so many of his colleagues.
To the extent that anyone should be credited for the bare minimum of civilised behaviour, Robinson’s non-sectarianism may be due to the very traits he is usually criticised for – being cold and calculating. Perhaps he is not interested in other people’s religion because he is not interested in other people generally and he has no time for sectarianism because he has calculated it is pointless.
If so, we should take progress where we find it. Robinson was never going to reach this conclusion by holding hands at the community centre.
Sectarianism is about more than religion, of course. Political intolerance can be as bad or worse but latterly Robinson has performed well enough in this regard. Once he decides to do a deal with Sinn Fein, he jumps in with both feet. His rows with republicans are invariably about deals he feels have been broken, after which he can fake friendliness towards Martin McGuinness almost better than he can fake it with anyone.
It must help that Robinson is not a Troubles victim. The worst attack alleged against his person was a case of a food poisoning in a restaurant, which his wife blamed on “nationalist staff”.
Nigel Dodds and Arlene Foster, Robinson’s probable successors as party leader and first minister respectively, both suffered horrendous traumas at the hands of the IRA. Gunmen targeted Dodds while he visited his son at a children’s hospital, a crime considered shocking even by Troubles standards. Foster had to leave her home as a child after an attempt on her father’s life and later survived the bombing of a school bus.
How many of us could live through these experiences then sit calmly in an office with the people we hold responsible?