You tried and failed, Peter – it’s time to go

Posted By: August 29, 2015

Alex Kane. Irish News(Belfast).Friday, August 228, 2015

Peter Robinson, First Minister.

In early December 2003, just after the assembly election that saw the DUP nudge ahead of the UUP, I wrote a piece setting out the arguments for David Trimble’s immediate resignation as UUP leader.

It hadn’t been a disastrous election for the party (27 MLAs to the DUP’s 30), yet it still seemed to me that “it can only get worse for him on the personal, political and electoral fronts. He, and he alone, will become the issue for voters and that will damage the party”.

At that moment I was also certain that Jeffrey Donaldson, Arlene Foster and Nora Beare (all elected as UUP MLAs) would defect to the DUP within a matter of weeks; and I was also aware that the DUP was headhunting and recruiting ‘influential’ UUP members and constituency association officers.

Anyway, Trimble ignored me and carried on for another 18 months, until June 2005, when the electorate made the decision for him, dumping him and all of his MPs apart from Lady Hermon.

About 18 months ago I wrote a similar piece setting out the argument for Peter Robinson preparing his own exit strategy. I couldn’t understand why he was hanging on.

The relationship with Sinn Féin was deteriorating at rate of knots. It was clear that there were elements and factions within the party who weren’t happy with him and who were also briefing against him. Most executive business was stuck in a mire. 

He had already been dropping hints that retirement was on his mind.

My conclusion: “It’s not going to get any better for you, so don’t hang around until you meet the same fate as Trimble.”

The Trimble reference was deliberate. A couple of days after I wrote the 2003 piece about him, Peter Robinson noted that: “Mr. Trimble would be well advised to listen to what Alex Kane is telling him.”

On Wednesday evening a DUP MLA said to me: “I wonder if Peter wishes he had got out earlier and avoided the coming meltdown?”

Robinson is in a horrible position at the moment.

The executive is toast. The assembly is heading towards a lengthy suspension. The DUP has been outflanked by Mike Nesbitt. He has the Nama story swirling around the mainstream and social media. DUP MLAs are either lukewarm or mute in the defence of him. His successor as leader is a matter of open debate within the party.

After almost eight years as DUP leader and first minister he has precious little to point to as the foundations for his legacy.

The biggest personal blow, of course, will be the collapse of the institutions.

He used to mock Trimble on an almost daily basis and was withering in his assessment of Trimble’s abilities as both a unionist leader and first minister.

And when Robinson became first minister he promised stability and the end to stop-start government. 

He insisted that he and Sinn Féin could work together.

He crowed about the confidence he had brought to unionism. He boasted that he could deliver what Trimble had failed to deliver – and so keen was he to do it that he hustled Ian Paisley off the scene.

What goes around comes around. Karma has a nasty habit of kicking you in the [a—] when you least expect it.

Robinson dithered, always finding excuses to hang on and insisting that his stepping down would not be calendar-led. But like so many other leaders before him, he has been scuppered by the “events, dear boy, events” moment.

He can’t be held responsible for the fallout over the PIRA story (although he did, like Trimble on a couple of occasions, take Sinn Féin on trust), but he knows that his party won’t agree to being marooned in the executive with Sinn Féin. He knows, too, that when the executive falls it will be a long time before it returns.

Will he want to lead the DUP through the next period of negotiations if he isn’t going to be defending his MLA seat at the next election?

Will he want to be responsible for renegotiating what he first negotiated between 2005-07 and which has now collapsed?

Will he want to hang around an institutional ghost? Will he want to carry on while he knows that the succession battle is already under way?

Not if he has any sense. For the sake of your sanity and, more important, for your health, call it a day Mr Robinson.

You tried. You failed. Recognise that reality and move on.