Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Alex Kane - The windbag shoots back at First Minister Peter Robinson

Political pundit Alex Kane, the target of the First Minister's jibe, says that in spite of his protestations, the DUP is already planning its post-Peter future

In denial: First Minister Peter Robinson

The most interesting aspect of Peter Robinson's 'I'm not quitting' article in yesterday's Belfast Telegraph was the fact that he felt the need to write it at all: the fact that he needed to echo Mark Twain and insist that rumours of his political demise were exaggerated and inaccurate.

His reference to "windbag commentators" was probably directed at me, because, on August 16, I wrote a piece in the Belfast Telegraph, which concluded, "If he [Robinson] wants to secure the future of the party he loves, then he needs to walk away. And soon."

Robinson comes closer than he's ever come before to acknowledging that he has internal critics: "Some of my own colleagues find me confrontational and inflexible. Perhaps they are right."

Again, it seems a strange thing to admit at this point. Why draw attention to the fact? Why not write that he enjoys the unqualified support of his Assembly and parliamentary team?

Well, he can't write that, because it wouldn't be true. And he knows it wouldn't be true.

It's now a matter of public record that key figures, like Sammy Wilson and David Simpson, forced him to backtrack on his support for the Maze peace and reconciliation project.

It's also the case that elements of the DUP's grassroots were becoming spooked by the reported success of the TUV/UUP/Ukip anti-Maze petition.

It's also worth noting that he doesn't actually say something as blunt as "I will remain DUP leader for as long as my colleagues wish it". Instead, it's a much more nuanced position: "Applying a sensible condition is not a U-turn and I'm not quitting. I'll be working on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland when many of those who predict my political demise, including those windbag commentators have left the stage ... my party will not be found wanting in the months and years ahead."

That's a leaving-the-door-open position.

And let's not forget that it was Robinson himself who opened that door, when he said in a previous interview that stepping down when he gets to 65 was an option. He'll be 65 on December 29, shortly after the Haass talks are due to end.

In fairness, he does have a point when he says that Northern Ireland is better than it used to be and that the new institutions are, by and large, stable.

But that's not why there is a question mark hanging over his leadership and that's why he wasted too much time in the article attacking too many people.

It was a diversionary tactic. There have been questions about his leadership, because members of his party – including those close to him – have been briefing political journalists.

They are the ones who have been saying that "Peter is out of touch" and "Peter spends too much time with Marty [Martin McGuinness], rather than the people who elected him."

They are the ones saying, "This Maze stuff is really hurting us on the ground". I don't remember Robinson dismissing as "windbags" those who were reporting that David Trimble's leadership was under threat.

Nor do I remember Robinson being silenced when Trimble wrote articles similar to his own tetchy, defensive piece yesterday.

His internal difficulties can be traced back to the 'attack' leaflet on the Alliance party last November.

Senior DUP members may have believed that it would all have been over by Christmas, but within days they had lost control of the agenda, the streets and the protest organisers.

They also lost control of the parades issue shortly afterwards: so much so that DUP representatives ignored leadership 'requests' to stay away from protests and forced the leadership to come onboard.

The Unionist Forum, set up in January, is, for all intents and purposes, dead in the water. Robinson may argue that the shift on the Maze isn't a U-turn, but nobody – including senior members of his own party – really believes it.

He has spent most of the summer out of the province, even though it has been a very troublesome period, with large numbers of PSNI officers hurt.

Instead of coming back to personally brief his elected representatives about the Maze decision, he sent them an 11-page letter.

Instead of waiting until he saw his Assembly group, he writes a piece for this newspaper about his position. This looks increasingly like the Postcard from the Edge approach to leadership.

A few days before Ian Paisley fell – in a coup orchestrated by Robinson supporters – Paisley was telling anyone who would listen that he was in control of the DUP.

And some of the people who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him during his last days in office were, in fact, facilitating his exit. Such is the brutal, bloody nature of politics.

One thing is clear: there are now people in the DUP giving serious thought to a post-Peter party. Positions are being taken and alliances forged.

He mustn't make the mistake of hanging on, because he thinks he's indispensable or, worse, hanging on simply to thwart someone else. The time to go is closing in and it would be better if he went of his own accord.

The leadership question is not going to disappear and his internal critics aren't going to stop briefing against him.

Welcome to Trimbleland, Mr Robinson.

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