In October 1987 Peter Robinson resigned, albeit briefly, as DUP deputy leader. No official reason was ever given, but the suspicion was that he was unhappy that the Task Force Report (commissioned by the UUP/DUP in response to the Anglo-Irish Agreement and co-authored by him, Frank Millar and Harold McCusker) had been rejected by Paisley and Molyneaux. The Report—parts of which have never been made public—asked the ‘Unionist leadership to contemplate variations of political structures for Northern Ireland which they, and we, have previously rejected. Time moves on and circumstances change. We found no suggestion that Unionists should be ashamed to adapt to changing circumstances.’ Apparently some of the proposals in the unpublished part are not all that dissimilar to what materialised in 1998 and 2007!
In January 2010 he stepped down, again briefly, as First Minister while investigations were conducted into a series of allegations against him and his wife. Yet on both occasions he retained the unconditional support of huge swathes of the DUP’s grassroots and grey suits. That’s not surprising. He’s been at the heart of the DUP for forty years, largely responsible for its ultimate political/electoral success. Paisley may have been the megaphone who attracted the attention, but it was Robinson who built the organisation and dealt with the sort of minutiae that would drive most of us bonkers. In 1981 Enoch Powell described Robinson as “one of the best political strategists in modern unionism.”
The loss of his East Belfast seat in 2010’s general election was a massive personal/psychological blow and it must have crossed his mind that his career was ending: for while true that he retained the support of his party (and it certainly helped that no other DUP MP lost their seat) it was possible that the electorate was turning on him—as it had with David Trimble. Yet at the Assembly elections a year later he delivered the best ever result for the DUP.
In May 2011 he could rightly be described as at the zenith of his career. He had seen off the UUP and, more crucially, seen off the TUV. He—and it was him far more than it was Paisley—had steered the DUP from the fringes to centre stage and his strategy of a ‘Fair Deal’ alternative, rather than wholesale rejection of the Belfast Agreement, had reaped unimagined dividends for the party. He dispatched Paisley when he deemed that his usefulness had been exhausted and ensured a bloodless transfer of total power to himself.
Back in September, at a jointly hosted Covenant dinner with the UUP, he hijacked the occasion for a bold speech about the way ahead and for a Council of the Union to gather together the entire pro-Union family. At the DUP conference in November he spoke confidently about reaching out to pro-Union Catholics. Journalists, finally, were beginning to describe him as pluralist, visionary and bold. And legacy matters to Robinson.
But look at him today! The confidence has gone. The leaflet debacle in East Belfast (and I don’t know if he authorised the contents) and the fallout from the flag protests seems to have sapped him, politically and emotionally. His reach-out programme has been fatally undermined. Some of his own representatives are ignoring requests to keep away from protests: even though many protesters make no secret of the fact that they revile Robinson.
Is he in danger of a sudden, brutal coup? Nobody thought it would happen to Paisley—but it did. Much of what Robinson says about reaching out is politely applauded at conferences, but there isn’t huge enthusiasm. There is still an evangelical wing of the DUP which isn’t happy.
But Robinson, unlike Faulkner and Trimble, is blessed by fact that there isn’t an obvious alternative to him outside the DUP. And in one of the truly brilliant tactical manoeuvres at which he excels, he has managed to tuck the UUP and Mike Nesbitt under his wing—ensuring that that party’s wriggle room is very constrained.
He’s also helped by the fact that there is no obvious unifying alternative to him inside the DUP itself. Oh yes, there are a number of people who would probably fancy their chances, but a change of leadership (which has only happened once in DUP’s history) would almost certainly be messier this time—unlike the coronation which ushered him into the job.
He has a number of priorities, the most important of which is ensuring that the DUP remains the largest party and retains the post of First Minister. A series of pacts and arrangements with the UUP seems to be his preferred option.
He also has to build a pro-Union vote, against a background in which Census figures indicate that ‘unionism’ (in the party political or personal identity senses at least) is already a minority. That involves reaching out and compromising and that will be something that will be treated with increasing suspicion by unionists inside and outside the DUP. As will convincing some of them that he has the measure of Sinn Fein!
The ultimate irony is that Robinson, having stolen all of Trimble’s clothes, may end up in a very similar position: dealing with an increasingly fractious party and increasing scepticism from mainstream unionism. What was it that Powell said about ‘all political careers’?
And what does his present position (and Nesbitt’s much weaker one) tell us about Unionism itself. Back in 1963 Unionism looked to be in a very comfortable, confident position. Terence O’Neill—the first genuinely ‘moderate’ unionist—had been selected as UUP leader and Prime Minister. He seemed more concerned with modernising Northern Ireland politically, socially and economically than with building newer and bigger walls. He was confident enough to visit Catholic schools and to talk about the need to build better relationships
O’Neill came to office about a year after the IRA had called off a Border Campaign which had begun in 1956 and during which a number of leading republicans had concluded that there was no real enthusiasm among nationalists for toppling Stormont and uniting Ireland. That gave him some room for manoeuvre. Yet in January 1965 a ‘secret’ visit to Stormont by Sean Lemass (which O’Neill sold as the South recognising the legitimacy of Northern Ireland) earned him a volley of brickbats from within his own party and from a young firebrand called Ian Paisley.
It was just another one of those moments which indicated how easily rattled unionism seems to become when it has to move from words about reconciliation to deeds of reconciliation. One by one O’Neill, Chichester-Clark, Faulkner, West, Molyneaux and Trimble fell when it looked as if they had become too weak, too easily pushed over, or too overshadowed by events. The same fate befell Paisley shortly after he had cut the deal with Sinn Fein and entered joint office with Martin McGuinness. It didn’t take long for him to be eased out as First Minister, Moderator and DUP leader. Indeed, he barely rated a mention at the last DUP conference.
So, as I say, it’s not impossible that something similar is happening to Robinson. The sense of absolute control and authority has gone. I remember him once making a jibe that David Trimble wasn’t able to walk around his own constituency of Upper Bann: and now people are making the same jibe about him. He cuts an increasingly lonely, isolated figure. Oh yes, he still has clout and still commands respect—but it’s not the same level of clout or scale of respect.
During an interview just after the 2011 Assembly election I suggested that Robinson might not want to hang around too long. The DUP probably wasn’t ever going to get a better election result and he was certainly not going to regain his Westminster seat. An awful lot of problems—economic, employment, shared future etc—were coming down the line and none would present him with rich pickings. Better, I argued, that he should go out on a high and enjoy a new career in the Lords.
As ever, though, events have overtaken him. Middle-of-the-road unionism is not listening to him anymore. Soft, small n nationalism has been put off by the debacle of last year’s parading problems and this year’s flags protests. Working class/loyalist unionism seems utterly disconnected from him. And inside his own political/electoral fortress the first sounds of discontent can be heard against a background in which elected representatives are prepared to defy him. His chance to go out on a high has gone.
All of which begs one huge question: will there ever come a point when unionism is confident and content? So confident and content that it doesn’t produce yet another split and dance to the tune of another newly minted hard line faction? The UUP is imploding. It serves no purpose anymore and probably won’t exist in 2021, the centenary of the opening of the Stormont Parliament. The DUP has internal tensions which, while still manageable, are, nonetheless, forcing Robinson into a harder stance on almost everything. Protesters on the streets, while not huge in number, are pushing the DUP, UUP, TUV and even UKIP further to the right.
Meanwhile, talk of realignment continues. As the political ground on the right becomes increasingly crowded it seems inevitable that something resembling a merger between most of the DUP and UUP (and some TUV) will happen pretty soon. The PUP has been running a propaganda/recruitment campaign over the past few weeks, hoping to tap into the discontent manifested at flag protests. My gut instinct is that they don’t have enough talent, thought-through policies or credibility to make any sort of breakthrough. Anyhow, as I argued in a piece here before Christmas (The Working Class Can Kiss My Arse) I’d much rather see a new political vehicle for working class unionism. The UKIP and the supposedly ‘new’ NI Conservatives will make the occasional noise but it’s hard to see either of them making anything resembling significant progress anytime soon—and probably never.
So we are left with a pro-Union centre ground (made up of those who don’t want unionist unity and many others who have just opted out) which does appear to be capable of sustaining at least one new political/electoral vehicle. Some people think the vehicle will begin with a new Assembly group centred around Basil McCrea, John McCallister and David McClarty (and under Assembly rules a three-strong group gets official recognition and could, just for the fun of it, designate itself as the ‘Opposition’).
And that means they start with a platform, a purpose, a profile and an audience to aim at: a huge tactical advantage over any other vehicle which may appear. They also have a run-in of over two years before the next Assembly election, allowing lots of time to get their act together, recruit and gather a handful of defections in the Assembly and local councils. If they play a soft pro-Union melody (one dedicated to the values of the UK rather than some form of triumphalism) they may even be able to attract the softer end of nationalism and those who, according to the Census, are content to describe themselves as ‘Northern Irish.’
Yet one blunt fact needs to be remembered: so-called ‘moderate’ unionism has never really taken root at any stage. Brian Faulkner’s UPNI withered and died very quickly. David Trimble did have enough ‘moderate’ backing to get the Agreement delivered, but not enough to win an outright majority in the first Assembly. Under Elliott and Nesbitt the party has abandoned any pretence of being centrist, believing, it seems, that there is no future in that direction. If there weren’t enough votes to sustain Faulkner and Trimble why would a new vehicle attract those votes? The only way to answer that question is through a new vehicle and the new circumstances afforded by the fact that so much of unionism has shifted to the right and the UUP is no longer a broad church.
Some of you may be wondering about the Alliance Party. My difficulty (and it is a personal one) is that I don’t regard Alliance as pro-Union. And it also seems to me that Alliance sees its role as the centre point between Unionism and Republicanism—which is not the role I see for a new centrist, pro-Union party. The best way to explain it is by saying that I like my unionism to be broad brush and multi-coloured, rather than the increasingly orange tinge of mainstream unionism or the, what seems to me, to be the turquoise unionism of Alliance.
Anyway, this is probably the last chance for a genuinely ‘moderate’, mainstream, confident pro-Union vehicle to be built. A party which wants to prioritise the needs of Northern Ireland as it could be and not two power-blocs with contradictory agendas who seem content to sustain and nurture stalemate and sectarian headcounts. I concluded a recent piece with this paragraph:
I’m a Unionist because I believe in the values, benefits, culture and inter-nationality that underpin the United Kingdom. It’s not a unionism of in-your-face symbols or regular bouts of triumphalism. But it is a unionism of understated confidence and a desire to bring good government rather than permanent stalemate. It is a unionism which requires something more convincing than a ‘vote for us to keep them’uns out.’ It is a unionism which wants to expand by confidence, consolidation and conversion and not by a unionist/loyalist/loyal orders forum—which, I suspect, would actually decrease the pro-Union vote.
I really do think that there is both the space and the need for a vehicle to meet those views. I believe there are enough people out there who share those views to make the building of such a vehicle worthwhile. The sooner the better.
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