Posted By: September 30, 2014

Fionnuala O’Connor. Irish News ( Belfast). Tuesday, September 30, 2014


INSULTS and abusive language as a leadership tactic in politics: best inside party meetings, away from microphones and pestiferous scribbling rodents, yes? Fine when mocking a few malcontents but self-destructive, surely, if your authority is in tatters and they really are coming to get you.


The present leader of the largest local party keeps his title only because ‘they’ like each other so little they have no alternative leader in waiting. The time of the puffed-up lemmings is not yet, but last week’s spurt of derision has done the mocker no good.


This is lowering, to a degree, because Peter Robinson is preferable to what might follow. But only because the alternatives are deniers of evolution as well as powersharing, while Mr Robinson as DUP leader has flipped images so glibly there might be a chance of him opting for movement forward rather than back. Since the moment he signed up from Florida to put parades before politics, though, maintaining confidence in him has become an ever thinner business.


Admirers – among officials and diplomats – of his brains in negotiation, recognition of his managerial skills, electioneering cuteness, drafting abilities, have struggled this past few years. Personal misfortune, family crisis were accompanied by bad taste and bad politics, so that pity for the man contended with distaste for the methods he and his party employed. To fend off legitimate inquiry as well as sensationalist prying, the DUP and its leader took to new-fangled legal implements on top of the hectoring the party has always practised in its founder’s image.


Loss of the East Belfast seat wounded Mr Robinson’s self-esteem, no doubt. The effect on his status inside the party is a work in progress. Since then the Robinson programme has included lip-service to integrated education and Catholic unionists, the Maze somersault, making a meal of the flags protests, insulting Islam and having to apologise, and walking into and out of talks about walks.


Last week we got Peter’s temper, this week he gets a Theresa Villiers relaunch of Haass: to what end? By the time of John Major’s ‘bastards’ outburst about the right-wingers jostling to knife him, which he thought was off-air, he was toast in any case. David Cameron brought his lot, plus the sober outer ring of objectors, down to be schmoozed at Chequers.


The Adams-McGuinness team (the joint name sounds old-fashioned already, doesn’t it) reserved public finger-pointing for when the opponents of the march into politics were well sidelined internally, until ‘the project’ had become ‘the peace process’ and the holdouts had been marginalised as trouble-makers, dopes, reactionaries. And as ‘dissidents’.


In the parade of North Korean-style DUP tweeters who pledged their all to the leader last week, the pious and weaselly were matched by something that looked a little like accidental honesty. How else to characterise Jeffrey Donaldson’s ‘Northern Ireland needs strong leadership, not internal strife in its largest party. Been through that before!’ He surely has.


Younger readers may not know about the cycle of punishing meetings of the Ulster Unionist party that Mr Donaldson and others created to grind down David Trimble, then his leader, if never his strong leader. Mr Trimble had no ‘clear mandate’, as Mr Donaldson now attributes to Mr Robinson, because Mr Trimble became leader of what was then the largest party, thanks to a UU belief that he would make a more sophisticated fist of refusing negotiations than the do-nothing strategy of predecessor Jim Molyneaux. When he discovered the only hope was to get in and argue unionism’s case he was hobbled, over and over, by his own revulsion at the prospect as well as by internal strife.


Kept a-bubbling by Mr Donaldson and others, encouraged by the mockery of negotiations by today’s champion of progress, P Robinson, trotting alongside the then leader of the Number Two unionist party, the Rev Ian Paisley. Mr Trimble made jabs at telling his party and his community the truth, backed away, came out fighting again, backed away. He coped, or tried to, by calling Republicans names, by lamenting the narrowness of (Irish) nationalism, talking up the merits of British pluralism, and by going red in the face in defence of loyal order parades past angry Catholics. There is a settled Unionist belief that Republicans/Nationalists drag down Unionist leaders to prove Northern Ireland unviable. Unionists do a good job of that themselves. Backing Mr Robinson is the longest of shots. He is too given to insults. They sound like the core of his being.