Apart from going, what did Peter ever do for us?

Posted By: November 24, 2015

William Scholes. Irish News(Belfast). Monday, November 23, 2015

If the hat fits – Peter Robinson is to relinquish the DUP leadership to spend more time with his carp 

PETER Robinson’s announcement that he will soon bow out of elected politics to spend more time with his carp had been long anticipated, albeit in much the way that the onset of winter or the next bus to Portadown is also long anticipated.

But that’s not the only reason that the reaction to the sun setting on a considerable political career has been muted.

Mostly it is because people don’t particularly like Mr Robinson or, at best, regard him with ambivalence. Among the general public he doesn’t inspire either the same affection or opprobrium as figures like Ian Paisley or Gerry Adams.

Neither given to wild gesticulating nor embedded in the Orange Order and the other tropes of unionist leaders, he has always cut a curiously low-key, self-sufficient figure: if Ian Paisley was Moses thundering to the people from Mount Sinai, Mr Robinson was Melchizedek, apparently plucked from thin air, a politician without genealogy, with no beginning or end…

But the end, as the DUP’s Free Presbyterian grassroots know, is nigh, and it is now for Mr Robinson.

Being able to decide when to end one’s career is a luxury rarely afforded to political leaders, and only the most myopic will fail to see the fact that Mr Robinson has pulled this off against the backdrop of yet another intensely difficult few months for power-sharing as anything other than evidence of his abilities.

As has become traditional when someone leaves a process as long-running, difficult to watch and torturous as the Stormont assembly, The X Factor or I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!, various colleagues and commentators have been on hand to say what a great fellow Peter is.

A lot of it was arrant nonsense, like congratulating the ballcock in your toilet cistern for doing such a wonderful job, and I had to turn off the radio when Robinson segued almost completely into Ustinov.

It became difficult to recognise the gregarious, humorous and warm-hearted figure being psalmodised as the same Peter of Clontibret and Ulster Resistance infamy, the leader of the Paisley putsch, the first minister who would deign to send a Muslim to the shops and the possessor of some truly dreadful shirt and tie combos.

While there may not be much affection for Mr Robinson, there is grudging admiration.

At this point it is customary to mention his apparently formidable negotiating skills and political acumen.

There is a danger of this sounding like being damned with faint praise. A four-year-old child also possesses formidable negotiating skills and when it comes to acumen, political or otherwise, the bar is set remarkably low among the cohort of politicians whom Mr Robinson has run rings around throughout his career.

His skills as a strategist are also feted and, like a Castlereagh Russell Grant, his soothsayer’s knack for reading the political runes is envied. The in-out ministerial ‘strategy’ and repeated threats to resign tell a different story.

People who know about these things mean it as a compliment when they say Mr Robinson would have prospered in a political environment other than Northern Ireland.

But apart from furthering the narrow party political interests of the DUP, it is hard to compile anything more than a slender volume of Robinson achievements that have benefited all the people in Northern Ireland. Admittedly, it’s not just anyone who gets a leisure centre named after them, but beyond that…?

Having manoeuvred himself into the top job and his party into power, it is reasonable to ask what he and the DUP did with it.

Power for power’s sake is shoddy enough but it’s worse when good, effective government doesn’t follow. Can Mr Robinson say our schools, roads and hospitals are in a better state today than they were when he became first minister? What has he ever done for us?

The operation of the Stormont executive cannot be described as any less dysfunctional than it was in 2008, even though seven years is long enough for some positive progress to have presented itself.

Sinn Féin has to take its share of the blame, but to review Mr Robinson’s record is to see missed opportunities.

There have been moments when he had it in his grasp to be more than just the leader of the DUP who happened also to be first minister of Northern Ireland, rather than the other way round: pulling the plug on the Maze-Long Kesh project, a scheme that had enormous potential to face head-on our troubled past; speaking of how he wanted Catholics to feel comfortable voting for the DUP, but doing nothing about it; colluding with flag protests and getting mired in parades disputes rather than facing them down; stalled initiatives to deal with the legacy of the Troubles…

Mr Robinson might be slipping away from Parliament Buildings though it is hard to imagine he will be consigning himself to a Sadducee’s grave, never to rise again.

The perspective of time might mean Mr Robinson is judged more favourably, but until then his time as first minister and DUP leader will be remembered as anticlimactic: he knew how to attain power and hold on to it.

Sadly, he didn’t know what to do with it.