Belfast Telegraph

Friday 1 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Rumours of Peter Robinson's demise may prove to be premature

Pensive pose: if Peter Robinson is considering his future as DUP leader then Arlene Foster could be in running for the post
Arlene Foster could be in running for top post

Speculation about the future of Peter Robinson as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party is gaining momentum. When he returns from his holiday in Florida, the First Minister will find the political scene buzzing with debate over who might replace him and whether that will be sooner rather than later.

At one point, it seemed Arlene Foster was the obvious successor given the fact that she was acting First Minister for six weeks in his absence in 2010 during the scandal surrounding his wife Iris.

Now Sammy Wilson has entered the frame seemingly undecided about his future at Westminster or Stormont after vacating the post of Finance Minister. His stock has benefitted from the recent revelation which credits him with persuading Robinson to go into reverse over the Maze prison plan. The First Minister is being painted as out of touch with grass-roots unionist thinking and, absent abroad, has allowed the speculation to develop over the leadership.

He will be 65 in December and recently he gave an enlightening insight into how he judged his future in an interview with the political commentator Alex Kane.

"When I stand down from politics isn't governed by the calendar as by the progress that I make on certain issues," he said.

"I want to be able to say the Union is a stronger place, Northern Ireland is more stable and the party (DUP) is better than it's ever been."

If those are his terms for retirement, many might conclude that Peter Robinson could not step down for quite a few years yet. While the Union remains strong the stability of Northern Ireland has been sorely tested in the past year. Furthermore several DUP Executive ministers have been subject to criticism and controversy. Edwin Poots, Nelson McCausland and now Robinson himself over his Maze about-turn, have been in the political spotlight. The flags and parades protests reveal the depth of dissent and detachment from Stormont and the DUP within some poorer loyalist neighbourhoods in Belfast in particular.

Robinson's principal achievement as First Minister has been to keep the Stormont show on the road. No matter how awkward or acrimonious the relationship between them has been, he and Martin McGuinness are still together. The Executive looks unlikely to collapse.

The pace of change under Robinson's leadership has not been enough for the British or Irish governments or Washington but hardly surprising given his approach. "I'm a pragmatist in politics. I don't think you can go from where we are to where we want to be in one step," he says.

His unwillingness to take risks may annoy nationalists and republicans but has served his popularity well with the party faithful as witness the rousing ovations he receives every year at the annual conference.

Robinson will leave a lasting legacy with the DUP as its principal architect. He has taken the party from the narrow ground of hard-line Paisleyism to become the mainstream unionism voice it is today. Many thousands of middle-of-the-road unionists who would not have entertained the DUP under Ian Paisley switched allegiance from the Ulster Unionists as have some of the latter's leading figures over the years, not least the leadership contender, Arlene Foster.

So who might succeed Robinson if he decides to stand down? Foster has hardly put a foot wrong, popping up everywhere as promoter of business and tourism, delivering positive messages at home and abroad about Northern Ireland. She speaks confidently and would be the first-ever female leader of unionism.

There was a time when any suggestion that Sammy Wilson might be party leader never mind First Minister would have been laughed at more than his jokes. Not anymore.

With his earthy knock-about humour, Wilson is to the DUP what John Prescott was to the Labour Party. His serious side as Finance Minister has impressed even his political opponents. He has shown an impressive grasp and oversight of the Executive's budget. He is one of the few MLAs or ministers at Stormont who can speak without a note and engage easily on radio and television.

If and when Robinson decides to go, the stage appears set for another town versus country contest for the leadership of unionism between Foster and Wilson.

Foster is a formidable voice from Fermanagh but the odds will likely favour Wilson, a former Lord Mayor of Belfast, because of his deeper DUP roots in working-class urban Protestantism.

Whatever happens, the prospect of a leadership contest in the DUP injects further uncertainty into the peace process.

The sooner Peter Robinson's intentions are clarified the better.

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