It is that time of the year again for another Democratic Unionist Party conference – so in what shape is that party? What I can definitively say is – no lights are going to blind Peter Robinson physically or metaphysically. There will be no bolts out of the blue – his leadership is rock solid.
The timing of his tramping all over David Ford, in the event of any undermining of the integrity of the Executive, was impeccable in the lead-in to the party conference. There were no circumstances in which the First Minister was going to allow a Justice Department official/officials to devolve what is essentially an Executive decision/decisions, to the prison authorities. Robinson took the view that ‘big issues’ of major impact, such as re-imaging of the prison service, were a matter for the Executive to agree in the first instance.
One can justifiably argue that there was a less nuclear way of dealing with this matter, possibly in calling David Ford to his table, in order to alert him to the fallout. Mr Robinson may well have done so. What is clear, is that the speed with which the First Minister warned he would call an election – should Ford act unilaterally – took even his own Assembly Members by surprise. Robinson’s response was visceral. Symbols, emblems or what one woman described as, “all that we have left,” struck a chord with Peter Robinson. His sense of history informed him of the damage done to David Trimble over the name change to and of the RUC identity, under which many members of the Protestant Unionist community died.
From purely an internal selfish party perspective, Peter Robinson, facing into his party’s annual conference hit the jackpot. His Assembly Members and the party faithful loved his decisive action.
His stance on the proposed merger between Stranmillis College and Queen’s University has also excited the party. He has written to Stephen Farry, the DEL minister, and spelled out that his party will oppose any merger if St Mary’s Teacher Training College remains untouched, free standing and empowered to perpetuate a catholic ethos for a catholic catchment. The First Minister argues St Mary’s is not viable long term if left as it is, against the emergence of a new relationship between Stranmillis College and Queen’s. One insider said, “Peter says if St Mary’s isn’t got over the line this time, it won’t happen and he doesn’t think it will survive on its own long term.”
Peter Robinson wants a ‘single education system’ and is ‘envisioning’ a single teacher training centre of excellence yoked under the auspices of Queen’s University. The DUP and the Orange Order are raising the issue of, ‘The Protestant ethos,’ being undermined – should there be a merger between Stranmillis and Queen’s. This is nonsense.
Peter Robinson has ticked all the right boxes in recent times for the party faithful, but he has yet to get his true thinking across to the wider community, who fear the implications of his stance on Stranmillis College and the Prison Service. He needs to elucidate his true thinking on these matters. I do not believe sectarianism or bigotry are informing any of his thinking on these issues.
Pragmatism and modernism demand inclusivism in education and in a prison service where 95% of the staff, we are told, come from a protestant unionist community. That is another day’s work for the First Minister, however there is no doubting that he rises to speak on Saturday in good shape with the Programme for Government at his back.
One last thing: he shouldn’t be too trusting on polls telling him Catholics are going to vote DUP, just yet. He needs more than himself to sell his brand of Unionism. Has he got any John McCallisters or Basil McCreas in his camp? “Thank God I don’t,” he might be saying to himself. It is arguable nevertheless, that these are the sort of people he needs, in order to spread his new repackaged forty year old brand of ‘O’Neillism.’
All credit to the DUP, they have worked out that no matter what they do during a political term when it comes to elections all they have to do is praise our soldiers or say the republicans are going to take over and they will automatically get their core vote. The truth is the DUP have done little for the Unionist community except for weakening the link with Britian until they did the deal on the GFA with St. Andrews as their comfort blanket.
The damage done to David Trimble with the name change of the RUC to the PSNI was made worse by the scare mongers in the DUP at the time of the GFA for political gain and not the overall good of our society coming out of conflict. It was hard for people to take but the leadership shown by Trimble has proved to be worth it when the vast majority of people now work with and talk to the police, something the DUP proved they were incapable of doing.
The DUP this weekend will continue to pat themselves on the back and tell everyone about the great job they have done at bringing stability to Stormont leaving out the fact that all the dirty work was done by others during the GFA talks. Members of the DUP continue to say during debates at Stormont that they would vote against the GFA today as they did in 1998 but they continue to work that agreement today and draw their money by the fistful.
As regards Stramillis the DUP are on a winner, votes wise, they are showing themselves as being “defenders of the faith fighting a just cause with the Orange Order” as they see it, so win lose or draw they will gain or hold onto their fan base. I have no doubt that the DUP will continue to stay strong with their tactics of being sycophants rather than the difficult task of leading society.