Hardline Gregory Campbell is now the authentic voice of the DUP

Posted By: November 25, 2014

Alex Kane. News Letter ( Belfast). Tuesday, November 25, 2014

For a few months between the summer of 2011 and the early autumn of 2012 Peter Robinson went through his ‘reaching out phase.’ 

He thought he could afford to. The council and Assembly elections of 2011 had confirmed the DUP as the majority voice and vehicle of unionism; the TUV and UUP had underperformed; PUP had all but disappeared; and the wobbles surrounding the removal (and there really is no other word for it) of Ian Paisley had been forgotten. 

Robinson had lost his East Belfast seat in 2010 and elements of the party had been scared of what further electoral damage was coming down the line: yet less than a year later he delivered victory on a scale that few (including some of his key supporters) could have imagined.

Robinson was, as I wrote in June 2011, “master of all he surveys in the unionist landscape”. 

So strong was he, indeed, that he now admits that, “if everything had operated according to my script I might have gone in 2011”. 

So strong, so confident was he, that he was prepared to set himself to the task of ending the ‘benign apartheid’ of our education system and reaching out to those Catholics ‘left behind’ by the socio/economic/moral/constitutional agenda of the SDLP and Sinn Fein. 

He seemed determined to reach out to those ‘tens of thousands’ of Catholics who were pro-Union, yet uncomfortable with the prospect of voting for a unionist party.

It was good stuff. Exciting stuff. An indication, perhaps, that Robinson was going to use his political and electoral strength — along with his iron fist control of the DUP machine — to move the DUP onto new territory: the sort of territory which would allow him to attract soft-u, non-voting unionists; pro-Union, non-voting Catholics; the unionist end of Alliance; and the liberal wing of the UUP. 

And in September 2012, during a dinner to celebrate the centenary of the Covenant, he signalled the creation of a Council for the Union, a body that would bring together the pro-Union arguments under one umbrella to promote the cultural/historical/economic/political/bonding/constitutional benefits of the Union. 

This, then, was a man and leader at the peak of his power and influence.

Within a few months, though, following the decision to stop the flying of the Union Flag all the year round at Belfast City Hall, the nature of the relationship between Robinson and his opponents within loyalism, the TUV, elements of the Orange Order and the UUP was to change. 

Change so much, in fact, that the reach out stuff and softer, gentler words were to be sidelined. 

In fairness to him, he doesn’t carry the entire blame for this change. At a moment when both the SDLP and Sinn Fein — individually and separately — could have been seen to help him, they chose not to. 

They chose, instead, to go out of their way to make life as difficult for him as they possibly could. 

In precisely the same way they had chosen to undermine Trimble rather than make any effort to shore him up.

Back in that 2011-12 period I believed that Robinson was serious about the reach out strategy. 

Deep down I think he knew that, unlike Trimble (or even Paisley) he was in a position to make a real difference to politics in Northern Ireland. 

More important, I think that he was clearly thinking about his legacy at that point, wanting to be remembered as someone who left unionism and the Union stronger, more comfortable and more confident than he found it.

But that required two things. 

He needed to improve the relationship between the competing agendas and ambitions of unionism and republicanism: and he also needed to ensure that unionism continued to consolidate around his leadership and vision. 

What he also required was his grassroots to stop kneejerking to every bit of mischief and annoyance from Sinn Fein (flags and parades, for example) and for his MLAs not to panic every time Jim Allister or some newly created ‘loyalist front’ put the boot into the DUP.

Sadly, that was not to happen. From December 2012 kneejerk and panic became the norm for the DUP generally, forcing Robinson — often against his will and instincts, I suspect — into one u-turn after another.

It was exactly what Trimble had to do and each new u-turn lost him support inside and outside the UUP. 

And in the Euro and council elections a few months ago the DUP lost its status as that majority voice and vehicle of unionism. 

The TUV/UKIP/PUP took a third of the unionist vote and the UUP managed not to slip any further. 

That was bad news for the DUP. It was worse news for Robinson. And it was a final goodbye to the 2011-12 ‘moment’. 

Neither Robinson nor the DUP is going to be reaching out to any non-unionists or even ‘soft’ unionists anytime soon.

At the 2011 conference it would have been inconceivable that Gregory Campbell would have said, as he said yesterday; “on behalf of our party let me say clearly, and slowly so that Caitroina Ruane and Gerry Adams understand, we will NEVER agree to an Irish language Act at Stormont and we will treat their entire wish list as no more than toilet paper.  They better get used to it.” 

That’s the language of the old DUP. And we better get used to it.

At Saturday’s conference a DUP member told me; “Trimble gifted 70-80,000 votes, maybe more, to us when he went down the reach-out-to-others line. We lost our top-dog position after three years when Peter made those same sort of noises. Look at Jim Allister now. The DUP won’t be doing anymore of that Trimble stuff.” 

He’s right, of course. The DUP won’t be doing the Trimble stuff anymore and nor will Robinson. 

Sinn Fein will be happy with that, too, because they treated Trimble with contempt. 

So here’s the reality: Gregory Campbell may not be leader, but he is the authentic voice of the DUP. 

That, I suspect, will turn out to be quite helpful for them at the coming election. 

But it’s not going to make any easier to repair the physical/political/psychological dysfunction at the heart of government.