Posted By: October 16, 2014

Newt Emerson.Irish News ( Belfast).Thursday, October 16, 2014

PETER Robinson has said he will not attend the opening “circus” of today’s all-party talks, which seems odd when he not only demanded this circus but appears to have been its ringmaster. 

Consider the convoluted plotting that has brought him to this point. 

The talks actually began in July, conveniently after the elections in May, to address the issues of flags, parading and the past left outstanding from the failed Haass talks in January. 

July’s first attempt at Haass Mark II was supposedly an initiative of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, but that did not stop first minister Robinson immediately leading all the unionists out over the banned Orange Order parade in Ardoyne, then regrouping them as the ‘graduated response’. 

Meanwhile, the welfare reform row brought the executive’s budgetary crisis to a head, leading Robinson to call in September for new all-party talks on a “St Andrews Mark II” to reform Stormont’s structures. 

The British government duly indicated it would oblige, while also signalling it would grant the separate north Belfast parade inquiry sought by the graduated response. 

So Robinson appeared to have created a two-ring circus, with parading in one unionist-friendly arena and Stormont reform in another. 

Then came the pre-reshuffle DUP meeting where both rings were revealed to intersect. Robinson admitted to colleagues that parading would be discussed at the new talks which, being of St Andrews level, would mean Irish government involvement. 

This caused (or provided the excuse for) the Poots faction split and attempted coup, during which further alleged background was leaked to flag protester Jamie Bryson, who claimed that the inclusion of parading in post-election talks was a private deal Robinson made with the British government after Haass failed. 

Although Bryson did not say so, this would also explain why Robinson was so confident about threatening London with resignation over the on-the-runs scandal in February. 

The reason the DUP leader is now being so rude about the talks that he has been manoeuvring towards since the start of the year is that he has to reassure the pan-unionist front that their north Belfast parading obsession will not be subsumed into wider dialogue. For the same reason, he is fussing over the terms of the north Belfast ‘panel’ to talk its significance up. 

It is as if ringmaster Robinson is inching across the big top on two parallel tightropes, or juggling two flaming torches, or leading out two elephants while hoping his audience only notices one at a time. And so on. 

A circus analogy hardly captures all this evident scheming. Instead, picture Robinson in the leather-bound office of the Castlereagh Hacienda, poring over a chessboard (or at least a draughtboard) while sipping a glass of Shloer. 

What is certainly correct about this image is that Robinson is alone. His moves seem to come as a complete surprise to even his supposedly closest allies, while his backroom isolation has now reached the point where it is causing needless, damaging mistakes. 

Even if it was necessary to play down the all-party talks, it was not necessary to petulantly denounce them as a circus, or to tweet a rude picture of Sinn Fein with its head in the sand (a good joke, but neither timely nor professional). 

There seems to be nobody that Robinson talks to or listens to, which raises the deeper question of what the pieces on the board really mean to him. 

The most intriguing personal fact about the DUP leader’s career is that he has never been a member of the loyal orders. For an east Belfast boy rising through the ranks of hardline unionism from the 1970s, this must have been a conscious and pointed rejection. Something in him decided that he should and could reach the top without a sash, yet once at the top he has allowed parading to take over the agenda and derail the more positive Unionist vision he set out and stuck to in his initial years as first minister. 

The significance of the peaceful summer delivered through the graduated response should not be underestimated. It is a critical precursor to any talks success and has helped to address the loyalist chaos that caused Haass to fail. 

However, it has narrowed Robinson’s focus onto cunning short-term moves, while taking Unionism further away from the inevitable moment of leadership where it must put parading in perspective. Robinson is good at prolonging the game. But what prize or principle is he playing it for?