Next Unionist Leader to Fall?

Posted By: August 20, 2013

Is Peter Robinson, First Minister and DUP chief, the next Unionist leader to fall?
The media in Northern Ireland seems to be smelling blood in the water


Finnoula O’ Connor. Irish News( Belfast). Tuesday, August 20, 2013
THE latest version of Peter Robinson is another episode in the tale of an odd man. It’s also the story of unionism, bickering and splintering as successive leaders scamper between front and back of the mob. After an adult life starved of light and air by closeness to Ian Paisley to then inherit the leadership at last, and with it the still-new title of first minister, Robinson last week interred his own reputation for cleverness. What his long letter to his party means inside the DUP remains to be seen. The effect it will have on political stability is another instalment in a long-drawn-out anti-climax. But the Robinson credibility account is empty. His chief asset has always been his ability. You might not want to spend time with him but overweening DUP founder and successive younger colleagues alike saw his value as a strategist, in the life-long Paisley/DUP ambition to displace the Ulster Unionists. He had the talent to run elections, keep an organisation nimble, in check and manoeuvre around Paisley. He had energy left over from creating his barony in Castlereagh council. The destruction of UUP superiority and hounding of David Trimble plainly gave him pleasure. As did the period sitting beside Trimble in negotiations, acknowledged by other participants as intellectual equal of the UUP leader, the law lecturer famously proud of his grasp of detail and forensic analysis. Paisley at his best filleted a document better than Trimble ever could. Robinson had the focus Paisley lost. If it was Paisley as much as Robinson who decided to stay in the game while rubbishing “the peace process”, the Robinson imprint marked the half-in, half-out tactic of executive ministers still badmouthing “Sinn Fein/IRA”. Whatever about the workings of the late-period Paisley mind, Robinson knew it was time to deal, and that Paisley at the prow could brazen through a somersault for which party activists, supporters nor voters had been readied. The old man finally retired, with a few lingering swipes back at his successor. Since then we’ve had the parliamentary expenses episode, the Iris affair, breakdown and removal from public life, the loss of Robinson’s Westminster seat. Enough twists and turns for any political career. Add several readings of the first minister role, nice, nasty and back again: inclusive Robinson: let’s have Catholics in the DUP. Followed by blithe regression in that diatribe he signed up to against the Parades Commission last summer, conveyed to us from Florida, like this summer’s offering. That a man holding the joint positions of leader of unionism and first minister in a supposedly shared executive would undermine a body tasked with protecting public order shocked some. It struck others with the dull, nauseating thump of inevitability.Now comes the Maze disaster, meaning the loss of major European funding, as finance minister Sammy Wilson confirms. In any other organisation, heads would roll. The republican camp largely contains its frustration and considers what to do, while the many elements of unionism squabble and jeer and blame each other. Present-day Robinson brings to mind nobody more clearly than Trimble. But he can call on much less sympathy than the man he and Paisley goaded and harassed. Week by week they poked at the “Purple Turtle: first he turns purple, then he turns turtle”. From his narrow-boat on the Thames or a quiet valley in Alto Adige, Lord Trimble of Lisnagarvey might lift his head from some tome or put Wagner on pause for a giggle as the hounds pursue the latest leader of unionism, as they bayed after Terence O’Neill, Brian Faulkner. Once it was Trimble who couldn’t visit his own constituency without rough handling and howls of “sellout”. Now it is Robinson, admitting as the flags furore took off that he couldn’t safely walk the streets of his own east Belfast. Trimble headed the messiest of organisations, internal enemies dickering with the DUP. Whatever about whispering MPs and MLAs scenting terminal loss of face today, Robinson until now faced at worst the barbs of his old colleague Jim Allister, possessor of a single assembly seat. But edging forward then doubling back has left him dizzied, facing dangerous opponents: the Orange, prison officers former and serving, almost the entirety of non-DUP unionism, some DUP. Delighted with themselves, disbelieving their luck. He was as well-placed as any unionist could be to forge ahead. He has botched it. Nobody knows that better than the brainbox of modern unionism, a man whose life unionist politics has eaten.