Robinson — another Trimble?

Posted By: August 24, 2013


Patrick Murphy. Irish News (Belfast). Saturday, August 24, 2013


So which is your favorite theory on why Peter Robinson has withdrawn DUP support for the proposed Maze peace center? Is he under pressure as party leader? Perhaps it is his opening shot in the campaigns for next year’s local council and European Parliament elections? Or is he just playing clever, to put the Maze on the shared future agenda? Of course, it could just be another silly season story (‘Politician Throws Tantrum’) that left most people overwhelmed with indifference.

This column learned several things from Mr. Robinson’s letter. He needs 2,300 words (five times the length of the editorial column on the left) to say “no” and he is immune from the theory and practice of the apostrophe. He is apparently allergic to commas and he does rhetoric rather than writing. (Yes, you say, but what about the content? Don’t be silly, it had no content. Politicians here do wrapping, not content.)

Whatever your view on Mr. Robinson’s motives (and the tantrum theory looks tempting) his leadership appears under threat. Despite his failure to condemn loyalist rioting, his phony war with Sinn Fin and his posturing on a unionist forum, Mr. Robinson has managed to develop what might be termed Trimble tendencies – a political ailment for which there is no known cure. (These days the ulster unionists are different – their leadership contests now produce a political cure for which there is no known disease.)

Robinson’s position raises an interesting issue. If he is under pressure for concessions to nationalism, how has Sinn Fein’s leadership survived the most barefaced U-turn in Irish history? In his 30 years as Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams has seen off the UUP’s Molyneaux, Trimble, Empey and Elliott and the DuP’s Ian Paisley. As far as we know, the Adams-McGuinness leadership has never faced internal opposition.

There is no shortage of possible explanations. Maybe it reflects theological differences between Catholics and Protestants. Perhaps Catholics are used to a rigid, inflexible hierarchy which tolerates no dissent? It exiles the disaffected to remote political parishes for heresy, disobedience or just plain backchat. There is as much chance of Gerry Adams leaving his post as there is of a pope resigning. (Oh yes, I forgot about Benedict XVI

Presbyterians, on the other hand, tend to believe in a more egalitarian structure, by democratically electing a new church leader every year.

The weakness in this argument is, of course, the Catholic SDLP (no, you may not point out that the weakness in most political arguments these days is the SDlP; it would be valid but unnecessarily ill mannered.) The party changes its leader almost as frequently as the Presbyterian Church but without the same degree of civility or continuity.

Perhaps then, it is all down to party discipline. Sinn Fein members have revolved from supporting ‘Brits out’ violence to shaking hands with the queen. Party ethos has moved from the Voice of the North newspaper in 1969, to a Daily Mail-style fawning for British royalty today. Such a U-turn requires more than discipline. It required the party leadership to be less than truthful about their long-term plans (“not a bullet, not an ounce”) and those who suggested what those plan might be, were vilified and isolated. As the truth emerged in stages, the disillusioned who drifted away were replaced with a new membership, which had neither the background nor the understanding to query what was happening.

A final explanation could be the difference between Unionism and Nationalism. Unionism is permanently in a state of defense, not just of the Union [with Britain] but of the trappings of Unionism. Even though the Union is secure (another Sinn Fein U-turn) every slight concession, real or imaginary, can be seen, quantified and complained about. Nationalists, on the other hand, are in progressive mode – they have an objective to aim for. Unionists defend political purity. Nationalists implement a plan.

Sinn Fein’s plan is to be in government in Dublin and Belfast by 2016. Concessions are more than outweighed by the probability of achieving that objective. The job is made easier by their leaders’ personalities. They come across as hand-shaking, back-slapping, men of the people. Robinson’s rather aloof leadership style is different. He appears to be a man who is more off the people than of the people. His failure to join the Orange Order does not help.

So as Robinson apparently prepares to make his way to the House of lords (Lord Robinson of Clontibret?), his party must prepare the job description for the new post-holder. Wanted: DUP leader. Must be like Gerry Adams. Beard not essential.