Elder statesmen a.k.a. retired politicians often grow wiser in retirement after shedding the burdens of office and the cares of party management. Sometimes their advice is welcome; sometimes it’s a stalking horse for a change of direction by their successors; sometimes it’s an embarrassment to them. We will soon know which it is this time. Conforming to type, Peter Robinson, for over forty years the usually steely self- disciplined deputy leader then leader of the DUP has offered some very direct, very deliberately timed advice to his successors on the eve of the DUP conference.
Instead of getting hung up too much on Brexit, he cut right to the heart of the Stormont standoff. He urged the DUP to lift their ban on an Irish Language Act and to start talking meaningfully to Sinn Fein without waiting on the British government to reconvene them.
His remarks have been reported by Brian Rowan and Eamonn Mallie on EammonMallie,com, which published the abortive draft agreement between the parties last February. Robinson said he wished the agreement that unravelled in February had been leaked earlier to this website. “If it had been many of the fears would have been addressed, specifically on the Irish Language Act”. Fears had been wrongly raised that there would be quotas in the Civil Service and Irish Language street signs everywhere.
In the light of the party’s failure to ratify the recommendations of their own negotiators and revealing his own scars left from struggles with his party’s militants, he warned Arlene Foster and co. “to be careful not to allow the most vociferous voices in your party lead you”.
After the failure of those talks he said, the government should have imposed direct rule.
Robinson is developing a reputation for breaching DUP orthodoxies. Party protests greeted his address to the Magill Summer School in Glenties in July when he broke a taboo by declaring that the DUP should confront the issue of a border poll and accept a verdict in favour of a united Ireland. His suggestion, to prepare for negotiations for a series of border polls once a generation, was attacked by both sides. To DUP critics, even raising it would increase support for a result they don’t want to contemplate, while Sinn Fein took the opposite line, accusing him of trying to quash demand by “neverendums,” as they say in Scotland.
At the heart of Robinson’s message is his conviction that the essential interest of the Union is not the DUP’s temporary power at Westminster but functioning power sharing at Stormont. This had been his main theme at Glenties and the previous month in a lecture at Queen’s when he feared for Stormont’s survival and advised the parties to try to agree on a manageable agenda including reforming the Assembly rules, before moving on to big issues of policy.
According to Rowan and Mallie’s account he began his talk provocatively.
“What a mess,” he began. “People at the top don’t know what they’re doing.” He wasn’t referencing Brexit or the standoff at Stormont, but the state of play at Manchester United.
One of the greatest mistakes the DUP ever made was not talking directly to our adversaries,” the former east Belfast MP commented – this part of the learning of the peace process era.
Much of the talking was done through the two governments – British and Irish – governments that “had their own agendas”, he said.
In the here and now, he had this advice: “If people want to maintain the Union it is necessary for us to have a stable government in Northern Ireland.”
“You need to be careful not to allow the most vociferous voices in your party lead you.”
Robinson believes devolution can be restored but, in the waiting, said the government should introduce Direct Rule.
He wished the draft agreement that unravelled in February had been leaked earlier to this website; saying that had it been many of the fears would have been addressed, specifically on the Irish Language Act. Mr Robinson cited fears wrongly raised that there would be quotas in the Civil Service and Irish Language street signs everywhere. “I couldn’t care less about the Irish Language. Let them speak it until they are green, white and orange in the face, as long as it doesn’t encroach on me” he said. This was “such a small issue” – smaller than say the devolution of policing and justice and, before that, agreeing the conditions for that Paisley-McGuinness Executive.
He said he had always been convinced that McGuinness wanted to make progress – “for the new era to succeed”.
He spoke of their common interest in sport – that this was how their Monday conversations began; discussing the weekend games.
“Without trust it [the political project] would not have worked,” he said.
His unscripted, conversational talk – stretching a little over an hour – spanned his fifty years in politics.
The former first minister spoke at length about the IRA killing of his best friend Harry Beggs which he said decided for him to become politically involved. He added “I decided then at the funeral not to let the terrorists win.”
Confirming he hadn’t spoken to Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness until two days before the press launch of the Assembly and Executive agreement between the parties – Peter Robinson said “I would have to admit there were times when I looked across the room at Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness and my mind went back to Harry Beggs but decided ‘the best way to honour those killed was by making sure others did not get killed.’ “
Referencing his involvement in secret political efforts to win peace down the years such as the inter party Duisburg discussion in West Germany in 1988, Mr Robinson said “this was down to a realisation on both sides the violence was not leading to a resolution but only to more coffins etc.”
Robinson spoke warmly about how he and Mr McGuinness shared party difficulties. “To operate you had to know what problems being faced in each other’s party. I told him things I didn’t tell others, he did the same and neither of us betrayed the other’s trust.
The former DUP leader recalled Martin McGuinness arriving in the RVH – to visit him with a basket of fruit when he had his heart attack. He said little did either know what was going to happen to Martin so soon – a reference to his illness and sudden death in March 2017.
On the broader political front, Mr Robinson in supporting the confidence and supply agreement between his party and the Conservatives at Westminster, warned that these things have “a shelf life” – that when numbers change, the Tories will move on, and he told his audience that a former Taoiseach had told him that people in Dublin are not “chomping” to be part of a United Ireland.
Mr Robinson contends that the two big parties might think they have other options, but that the DUP and Sinn Fein focus should be on Stormont and on the restoration of stable government here – this the challenge for Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill.
On one other issue – the question of a legacy process – Robinson believes it will be more divisive than healing and that there will never be a common narrative.
He referenced the scenes at the launch of the Eames/Bradley report almost a decade ago – saying he thought the riot squad was going to have to be called.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London