After the posturing, all eyes are on unionists

Posted By: September 04, 2015

Allison Morris. Irish News( Belfast). Wednesday, September 3, 2015

Peter Robinson said this week Stormont cannot return to “business as usual” after the latest political crisis and UUP walkout, which might have served as a dire warning were it not for the small matter that prior to the summer recess the assembly wasn’t functioning anyway.

The fact the DUP leader was outflanked by politics’ answer to Ron Burgundy while he was trying to top up his tan has obviously angered him no end.

It seems the opinion of most political commentators – and a now-notorious renegade blogger – that Peter Robinson’s reign as leader of the DUP is coming to an end. The speculation that he is going to jump ship is being fuelled by enemies within his own party who are giving ‘briefings’ to anyone they think can help topple the unpopular leader from his unstable perch.

Payback from the Paisleyites has been brewing for some time, made worse by the fact even moderates within his own party are shy in offering support to their beleaguered leader.

Robinson’s political career is coming to an end. His legacy and that of his family – once Northern Ireland’s most powerful dynasty – has been damaged irreparably, mainly, it must be said, by their own actions.

Mike Nesbitt managed to broadside his unionist rival by using the murder of former IRA hitman Kevin McGuigan as a way to spin a politically contrived walkout into a morale crusade.

Truth be told, the murder of a former IRA prisoner by one-time associates has no impact whatsoever on the lives of ordinary Unionists. Republican infighting does not mean there is an appetite within the ranks of the mainstream IRA for a return to either sectarian violence or violence against the state. Those days are well gone.

However, McGuigan’s murder last month provided the UUP with a perfect opportunity to take revenge on the DUP, albeit on the back of a very personal tragedy for the families of two murdered Republicans.

If the UUP were genuinely responding to violence and not just politicking, they would have refused to sit on the unionist forum with members of the PUP. This unity project came after the murder of Shankill Road man Bobby Moffett which was blamed by the Independent Monitoring Commission on the UVF, saying that the killing was sanctioned at a high level.

The UUP have justified this by saying they were trying to bring people along with them, and on that count I agree totally. Leaving people behind is never desirable. Former members of the UVF and UDA are still members of the community, in some cases still very influential members, and for unionist politicians to cut them loose would be a mistake and demonstrate a lack of political leadership and vision. That doesn’t mean they should not also hold them to account for their actions while at the same time making political gain off the backs of Sinn Féin.

Revenge for the destruction of David Trimble’s career – attacking the former UUP leader for ‘sitting down with terrorists’ only to do the same when the price was right – has now been duly served.

All well and good in the male-dominated world of locker-room Unionism but once all the backslapping is over, what now for the future of the devolved institutions? The institutions set up as an alternative to the violence that ripped the heart out of Northern Ireland for over 30 years.

Sinn Féin are fooling no one when they deny IRA involvement in the murder of Kevin McGuigan, which was a straightforward revenge killing by those loyal to their former leader Gerard ‘Jock’ Davison.

The appearance of senior republicans at Davison’s funeral, the full-page advert in The Irish News by numerous community groups – many Sinn Féin-dominated – eulogising him in his death were all bright flashing indicators that Davison was still very ‘well got’ and ‘on message’. He was not a so-called dissident and had no truck with members of many of the republican breakaway groups who would therefore have had no reason to avenge his death.

And while two murders in tight-knit republican communities have done Sinn Féin no favours, they will ride this current crisis out safe in the knowledge it will do them little damage electorally.

However, the next few weeks will be politically defining for unionism. The parties look set for yet more talks, this time with the UUP in a position of strength and the DUP playing catch-up, a remarkable turn of events.

As Robinson’s late adversary Ian Paisley might have said: “So the last shall be first, and the first last.”