Belfast Telegraph

Friday 11 July 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Asserting his authority to get process back on track

Peter Robinson
Peter Robinson

"I haven't gone away you know" could have been the subtitle of today's piece by Peter Robinson.

The First Minister is using space in today's Belfast Telegraph to assert his authority over the political process, to put some stick about amongst the media and his rivals and map out the road map for the rest of the Assembly term.

It is not before time. Apart from an intervention on Syria, we have had 25 days of silence from him since his bombshell announcement on the Maze/Long Kesh. That 11-page letter was irascible in tone, it unsettled the political process and his subsequent silence fed the rumour mill which held that he might be considering his future.

The silence was filled by speculation about who might succeed him.

If this had continued he was in danger of becoming a lame duck leader. Some in Sinn Fein were beginning to wonder whether he still held the reins of power in the DUP and questioning whether agreements he reached with them could really be relied on.

Other unionist parties had seen him reverse course on the Maze/Long Kesh development and looked for other issues on which to pressure him. The UUP and TUV have already begun agitating for the reform of local government to be reversed.

However Mr Robinson sells the Maze decision, and he hasn't been around to sell it at all since he announced it, the immediate effect was to create a market for pressure. Other unionists believed they detected weakness and set out to exploit it.

Mr Robinson knows that other politicians want to profit from his difficulties; he hits back by accusing them of ignoring the interests of the wider society for party or personal gain. Perhaps, but these words of condemnation will cut little ice unless he shows that he is in charge.

Whatever tensions exist between the DUP and Sinn Fein, maintaining a working relationship is an immediate political imperative for both parties. This means projecting unity of purpose on a short-term agenda when he and Martin McGuinness appear in New York today. Businesses seldom invest in unstable administrations and he needs investment to succeed. That is why he is pitching for it in America and will do so in China and perhaps Japan later in the year.

Unity of purpose is also essential at Stormont. Sinn Fein and the DUP have fundamental differences but if they don't work together the business of government will grind to a halt and they will both be seen to have failed.

Mr Robinson knows that the partnership between these opposing parties can only be sold to the electorate if it delivers economic progress and a shared future.

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