Robinson “step back, take a breath and ensure there is sufficient space for an agreement to be reached in the calmer times that follow the hustings”

Former First Minister, Peter Robinson has taken to Facebook to give his views on the most recent election. He has allowed us to re-post his views on Slugger

Over the past few weeks many of you have sent me messages asking for my views on recent events. When I retired as First Minister and Party Leader, I determined not to be enticed into providing a running commentary on local political events.

The level of peace and stability that has characterised recent years was hard won and involved years of difficult work and endless negotiations.

There is still so much more to achieve and some distance to travel on our journey towards fully functioning democratic structures and genuine reconciliation but we should not lose sight of that goal.

The consequences of regression are many and may well be catastrophic. It must, therefore, be the duty of each of our elected representatives to embrace that essential value also enshrined in the Hippocratic Oath – primum non nocere (first, do no harm).

When I left office, the Fresh Start Agreement was in place and the major parties, DUP and Sinn Fein, were both committed to its implementation. The DUP maintained all their seats in the May election with Sinn Fein only dropping one.

With a fair wind, 5 years were available to implement an agreed Programme for Government and Northern Ireland should have been benefiting from a settled political environment with politicians working to deliver.

I admit I view life from a unionist prospective but I still cannot fathom how an election at this time and, given the higher and wider considerations, was justifiable.

There is no question that mistakes were made with the renewable heat scheme – that much everyone agrees – but throughout the world mistakes are made by politicians and government officials without it amounting to a crisis with the potential of bringing down the political institutions.

Of course, opposition parties will want to make hay – that’s their legitimate function – though in these circumstances, their similar failure as Members of the Assembly Committee with a statutory responsibility to scrutinise departmental legislation and actions also leaves them exposed.

However, the proper role of the Executive was to put in place corrective cost-control measures and initiate a thorough enquiry to ensure that lessons are learned and failings are identified, documented and published.

If culpability and claims of wrongdoing at any level are sustained, then the enquiry Judge should recommend sanctions as appropriate. These steps have been taken and that should have been the beginning and end of the action plan to deal with the crisis until the enquiry reports.

There was never a need for an election, nor were the people who live here ever going to derive any benefit from it. The argument that “it’s time for the people to have their say on these matters” is bogus.

The time for people to have their say would have been after the public enquiry had published its report and all the facts were known and independently evaluated without spin, hype or sensationalism. Instead we have had an increasingly fractious contest that has further divided and limited the ability to rebuild the political institutions.

It is not for me to reach any conclusions about why Sinn Fein chose instead to force an election and declare that they would not return to the status quo, but I cannot help feeling, no matter what now will be said, that had Martin McGuinness been in good health a breakdown would have been avoided.

As it is, the more belligerent elements in Sinn Fein have seized their opportunity and are seeking to advance their agenda regardless of imperilling the political structures.

When Arlene was installed as First Minister and leader of Northern Ireland’s largest party I told her she would have a short honeymoon and then they would come for her. The holder of the top post on entering office becomes the target of every envious politician and party.

But even by that standard she has been harshly treated over recent weeks. You can be sure that when the Public Enquiry is completed, and suggestions of wrongdoing are found to be groundless, the media will not fill their programmes and columns with apologies and the self-serving politicians in Sinn Fein, the SDLP, UUP and Alliance who have directed thinly disguised accusations of corruption against her will fall silent.

Such is the injustice of modern day politics.

Some have attacked the DUP for stressing the possibility of Sinn Fein taking the lead political position in Northern Ireland and pointing to the increasing role of Gerry Adams as the puppet-master.

For many unionists the thought of Sinn Fein tricolour-waving victory cavalcades touring the country and Adams crossing the globe purporting to speak for Northern Ireland will be enough to bring them out to the polls and vote for the DUP who alone can keep the top position for unionism.

For me, the prime concern is that as the largest party Sinn Fein would have a significantly enhanced influence with government in future negotiations. Sinn Fein are proposing that major negotiations should take place after the election.

There are two aspects to this that need to be understood.

  • Firstly, if there is going to be a major negotiation it will not be around Sinn Fein’s wish list alone, unionists will also arrive at the table with their own list of demands to deal with the weaknesses of the present structures, chief among them will be the mandatory nature of the coalition, the jointery of the Executive Office, community designations and a very different emphasis on legacy matters.
  • Secondly, a negotiation of the scale Sinn Fein are seeking to initiate will not be completed in the time legally available. Almost inevitably, the Assembly will be suspended and Northern Ireland will be back to Direct Rule (or as Gerry Adams would describe it – Tory rule). I’m not convinced the electorate will want to endorse years of that!

Sinn Fein, by calling the election and setting out their agenda, have made this election into one of constitutional importance and provided an imperative for a high unionist turn-out.

The recent opinion poll showing an equivalence in DUP and Sinn Fein support and the very real possibility of Sinn Fein taking the top spot will inevitably lead to voters rallying around the two major parties.

The result may take account of the ebb and flow of politics but, I suspect, it will still produce two large parties’ representative of the two main sections of this community.

For every party leader in election mode, the temptation to do what gets the largest vote, irrespective of the long-term consequences, appears attractive. Sadly, it was not resisted.

As things stand the road ahead leads inexorably to stalemate. The election has pushed parties further apart and if over the next few weeks parties retain a list of red-line demands inflated by electoral enthusiasm it will be impossible to reach agreement in either the short or medium term.

The structures, however imperfect, are all that stand between Northern Ireland and political isolation and impotence. While the election is unstoppable the headlong rush into destruction is not.

Parties need to take care that the positions they are adopting do not close off sensible options. They should step back, take a breath and ensure there is sufficient space for an agreement to be reached in the calmer times that follow the hustings.