‘Do as I say, not as I did’: From a distance, Robinson seeks to provide direction to a rudderless Unionism

Almost exactly six years ago, Peter Robinson addressed his party’s annual conference and delivered the following lines as part of his leader’s speech in November 2012 as reported in The Detail at the time:

“In this decade I believe we have been presented with unionism’s greatest opportunity. And this time our purpose is not to defeat, but, by words and deeds, to persuade.”

“That means challenging ourselves….it means building a society where everyone feels equally valued….we must look outward beyond our normal horizons.”

“My goal as leader is to lay the groundwork that will cement our place within the Union. If it means taking tough decisions or abandoning out-dated dogmas, then I’ll do it…..”

“We have the confidence of knowing that a majority of Protestants and Catholics alike support our constitutional position within the United Kingdom. They know they are better off with Britain….”

“Cross-community government has increased support for the constitutional status quo in Northern Ireland. Understanding the significance of that trade-off is important as we plan for the future….”

Alas, Robinson was incapable of living up to his own words, following in the long tradition of unionist leaders instead by choosing the path of abdicating leadership when crisis and opportunity arose in the form of the loyalist flags protest only a matter of weeks later.

Outdated dogma trumped strategy premised on rational thinking.

Fast forward six years, and it appears Peter Robinson is finding it difficult to hold his tongue as he watches an Arlene Foster-led DUP repeat many of his mistakes and lose any advantage gained by a Robinson-led DUP over nationalism during the devolution period.

With Stormont continuing its period of hibernation, the line from Robinson’s 2012 speech which resonates most clearly today is when he identified the need for unionists to challenge themselves and strive “to build a society where everyone feels equally valued.”

Today, the DUP have positioned political unionism as the anti-rights pro-Brexit party, vehemently opposed to same sex marriage, an Irish Language Act and to a European Union which brought a layer of identity and sense of comfort and stability to many who baulk at the binary identity labels defining the majority in our society, the third tier of Others who demographic change has conspired to render the cohort critical to determining the constitutional future of the north of Ireland.

To say the DUP needs critical friends at this time is to point out the obvious.

Too often, the loudest and most prominent voices within Unionist politics and commentary are those resistant to reform and change, still clinging to the belief that the only safe Union is one which looks and feels as British as Finchley (even if the local strand of Britishness is virtually unrecognizable to many residents of that district of north London).

In a typically insightful article in the Financial Times last Friday, leading economist David McWilliams explored the impact of Brexit and demographics on the united Ireland debate. In the lengthy piece, McWilliams made this astute observation:

Prosperity, not Protestantism, will save the Union. Right now the biggest threat to this is the DUP and their Brexiter allies. The staunchly Unionist DUP is against special status and ultimately their stance threatens the Union. A Whitehall-dependent Northern Ireland is a poorer and more parochial Northern Ireland and as a result the Union is far less attractive to lukewarm Nationalist voters.

A common feature of Peter Robinson’s recent interventions has been his repeated denials that his comments could and should be interpreted as criticisms of his former party and its leader, Arlene Foster. He was at it again last week.

That is understandable, though clearly not entirely the truth.

The purpose of Robinson’s interventions is to provoke discussion and debate in the risk averse environment inhabited by political unionism. He is not seeking a public spat with his former colleagues.

Back in June, Robinson delivered a talk which (though he denied it) included obvious criticisms of the Foster leadership in a speech which also floated the idea of generational border polls and institutional reform at Stormont.

In July, Robinson returned to the theme of preparing for a border poll at the MacGill Summer School, drawing a ferocious response from his former party colleague, Sammy Wilson, who labeled the comments as “dangerous and demoralizing”, dismissing Robinson’s suggestion that unionists need to prepare for a border poll as “an invitation to republican arsonists to come in and burn our house down.”

By November, he was chiding his former party for allowing the most vociferous voices to guide the party’s direction and also delivered a veiled rebuke to the party leadership for allowing the Irish language to become a key stumbling block issue.

Robinson’s hope must be that the proposals and observations he is airing will ultimately help shape both the approaches adopted and decisions made by his party and unionism more generally, potentially proving to be in the self-interest of unionists in the longer term in spite of the perception of short-term concession or loss.

His publicly expressed regret at the fact that unionists did not talk directly to republicans from an earlier stage was a shrewd statement, pointing to his own fallibility whilst also challenging the default approach of political unionism to negotiations. On that, one suspects he now finds tedious and perhaps even counter-productive the traditional DUP opposition to direct Irish government involvement in talks about internal northern affairs, knowing that nationalist politics is moving decisively towards all-Ireland parties.

A culture of lundification continues to pervade unionist politics. Facing that down will require a strong, visionary leader capable of holding nerve during challenging times.

It is easy to dismiss Robinson’s utterances by pointing to his own shortcomings when holding office. But that would be too easy. What Robinson has to say at this time is important.

The DUP – and unionism- is in a hole and does not appear to have any idea as to how to get out of it. At least Robinson recognizes that and is making an effort.