” Trapped in His Own Pincers.”

Posted By: September 12, 2013

  Note : Irish News columnist explains how he sees the problems facing First Minister, Peter Robinson.

ROBINSON BACK FACING AN IRRESISTIBLE FORCE Newt Emerson. Thursday, September 12, 2013 PETER Robinson is back and vowing to fight the next three elections, taking him up to the assembly contest in 2016. But what will he be fighting against? In 2011, before he uncorked the loyalist genie, Robinson’s opponent was clear. He was fighting the trend towards a three-party system. ‘Party’ is perhaps too neat a term to describe this future prospect. A three-centre system might be a better description. But whether each centre comprises one party or several operating in pacts, the logic is inescapable. There is only a role in our politics for one unionist and one nationalist big beast, leaving enough space between them for a third beast. This third beast does not have to be very big to roar. With unionism and nationalism heading for a tie just below outright majorities, the balance of the vote is easy to attain. In fact, Alliance managed this in the last Stormont and council elections in terms of ballots (if not quite seats) and the last Westminster election in terms of seats (if not quite ballots). Alliance is the obvious nucleus for a third force, not that Robinson will be using that expression. It is a limited and problematic party for such a development, being de-facto unionist, confined to greater Belfast and boosted by a nationalist tactical vote that will peel away as nationalism grows. But at a persistent 7 per cent Alliance can shrink significantly and still be crucial for years as unionism slips slowly below 50 per cent (at Stormont it is on 51.5 per cent). The only thing stopping Alliance from translating the balance of the vote into the balance of power are Stormont’s power sharing rules, specifically the requirement to designate as nationalist or unionist plus the ban Sinn Fein and the DUP introduced at St Andrew’s against switching designations mid-term. In a hung assembly these rules would look increasingly untenable as every controversial vote that passed would be passed by a minority (usually a unionist minority). The present DUP and Sinn Fein positions on power-sharing could reverse as unionists try to save their veto, creating a spectacle that would only benefit Alliance and enhance the pressure for reform. In 2011, there was little doubt that Robinson had run this scenario through his political calculator. Alliance was in the ascendency with Naomi Long ensconced in east Belfast, David Ford assuming the justice ministry and party strategists eyeing up the carcass of the UUP. Robinson’s response was a pincer movement, coming after Alliance’s moderate unionist vote with grand speeches on integrated education and the evils of a “them and us” society, then coming after Alliance’s loyalist vote in east Belfast with the infamous leaflet on Belfast City Council’s union flag. It is commonplace to say that the flag leaflet was about Robinson getting his Westminster seat back from Long. This is also a little too neat. The leaflet was about the third force threat to unionist dominance in general, as epitomised by Belfast City Council. Robinson has long viewed Belfast City Council as an analogue of Stormont, unfettered by power-sharing rules. During the DUP’s anti-agreement years he prominently cited the council as a model of functioning majority rule. Yet by the time Belfast witnessed Robinson’s life-long dream of the DUP swallowing up the UUP, Alliance held the balance of power and was dictating to everyone else under electoral conditions almost identical to Northern Ireland as a whole. Robinson must have seen this as a portent of Stormont’s future, spoiling his majoritarian hope for Stormont reform. So Alliance had to be swallowed up as well. We now know that Robinson became trapped in his own pincers as the loyalist gambit ran out of control. It seems laughable to talk of a third force after the ensuing polarisation. Alliance has lost its important loyalist vote, may lose defecting UUP voters to NI21 and can do little about either without alienating the bulk of its supporters. However, the fundamental logic of a three-party system persists and the numbers still add up to the same conclusion. Unionism is set to lose its majority and Alliance is set to hold the balance of the vote, probably for decades. What has changed is that the DUP can no longer come after Alliance with a pincer. Loyalists and moderate unionists have been driven so far apart that, for the foreseeable future, Robinson must pander to one and abandon the other. His choice will set the tone for as long as he remains. Our Columnists • image descriptionNewton Emerson Newton Emerson • image descriptionJim Gibney Jim Gibney • image descriptionAnne Hailes Anne Hailes • image descriptionWilliam Scholes William Scholes iPad & iPhone edition Itunes Store Subscribe Now Subscribe Now View Media Pack View Media Pack Socialize With Us! • facebook • twitter • linkdlnk Contact Us • Reader Holidays • Photo Sales • Croke Park Trip • WEA • Memoriams Cards • Careers • Classified • Coaching days Back to top Fr. Sean Mc Manus President Irish National Caucus P.O. BOX 15128 Capitol Hill Washington, DC 20003-0849 Tel. 202-544-0568 Fax. 202-488-7537 sean@irishnationalcaucus.org