History may shine light on contradictions of Robinson

Posted By: November 20, 2015

Jim Manley. Irish News(Belfast). Thursday, November 19, 2015
Few observers expressed surprise yesterday when Peter Robinson announced he is stepping down as DUP leader and first minister.

At 66, with a recent health scare and an assembly election looming, anybody with half an interest in what passes for politics in the north knew his departure was imminent.

All eyes will now be on the new year’s honours list in anticipation of his elevation to less choppy political waters in the House of Lords.

Were he to return to the comfort of Westminster five years after his electoral humiliation in East Belfast, some believe it would be a fitting end to a 45-year career that began in dark days at the outset of the Troubles but concluded with a fresh agreement that reinforced the peace at Stormont.

However, the deal brokered this week between the DUP and Sinn Féin and the two governments is also an illustration of Peter Robinson’s failings as a leader.

He is reputedly an astute politician, who rose from humble beginnings to the apex of power in Northern Ireland. But when his record in government and at the head of his party is analysed, does it really reflect success?

It can be argued that the DUP is most effective when it is in opposition. For nearly 40 years it acted as unionism’s hardline conscience, yanking back the Ulster Unionists when its bigger rival dared showed too much willingness to accommodate nationalism.

When in power, however, it has been paralysed by the same obstinate mentality that bedevilled David Trimble.

Mr Robinson – ‘the master tactician’ – is given great credit for manoeuvring Ian Paisley into power sharing, before unceremoniously ousting his political mentor.

But what has been achieved since? Where is the genuine strategy for building a shared future or for making nationalists feel more at home among a unionist majority?

Even his admirers struggle to list his accomplishments and arguably his only substantive achievements in nearly eight years of government are maintaining the longest unbroken period of devolution since 1972 and securing the DUP totem of a corporation tax cut, though even that’s three years away and is yet to be proven as a tool for attracting investors.

In recent years, the first minister became increasingly ineffective, initiating a series of stunts and knee-jerk responses on flags, parades and paramilitarism.

Let’s not forget the capitulation over the Maze-Long Kesh, the short-lived Unionist Forum, the ‘graduated response’, the talk of the DUP being Westminster ‘kingmakers’, and most recently the farce that was the in-out ministries.

History may be kind to Peter Robinson and remember him as a shrewd politician who guided unionism into a new era. Others may recall a man who once he assumed power, did not know what to do with it.