Belfast Telegraph

Friday 31 October 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Can Peter Robinson keep the peace with DUP hardliners?

Tactical move: Peter Robinson may have had no choice over his Maze U-turn, but may still have to take tough stance in the Haass talks

Peter Robinson will be called on to make rapid decisions when he returns from his summer break. He can choose between confronting powerful forces in his party, appeasing them or winning some of them over to his vision.

We got a fresh glimpse of the sort of unenviable pressure he faces in this week's Portadown Times. David Simpson, the DUP MP for Upper Bann, told the paper that he and his seven fellow DUP MPs, along with grassroots members, had pressured Mr Robinson into his change of heart on the Maze Peace and Reconciliation Centre, which they dubbed a shrine to terrorism.

"I was determined no shrine should be built at the Maze in any shape or form that would add to the deep hurt of victims' families. Grassroots unionists wanted nothing to do with any shrine on that site. The leadership finally listened to the people," Mr Simpson said.

He refused to comment on reports that Mr Robinson's position as leader would have been untenable if he had refused to reverse course.

Mr Robinson has the ability to make complex political calculations calmly. The DUP would never have risen to its present size and influence if he had not stood at Dr Paisley's shoulder advising him what would work. Without him, the DUP would have remained on the margins, a party based on a fundamentalist hardcore instead of becoming the province's dominant political force.

He may have been right to make the calculation he did on the Maze – he may have had no logical choice. Even so, it has shown that he can be shifted from agreed policies by appeals to traditionalist sentiment. He will now be pressured to take a harder line in the Haass talks – the Maze reversal can be either a tactical adjustment or a decisive change of course. It is up to him.

Since he took over as DUP leader Mr Robinson has spelt out his vision in a series of speeches and interviews.

He talked of the DUP expanding into the centre of politics, and eventually crossing it to attract votes from Catholics. As the Catholic proportion of the population moved towards numerical parity, he calculated, like Lord Carson before him, that the Union and the majority role of unionist parties could only be secured with their co-operation.

Mr Robinson needs to consider whether he wants to be remembered for pushing this strategy despite some opposition, or abandoning it in the interests of keeping party traditionalists comfortable.

There are dangers on either side. To take the parallel of UUP leaders, James Molyneaux kept the UUP united, but achieved little else.

David Trimble pushed politics in a new direction at the cost of weakening his party.

Mr Robinson will want to avoid the mistakes of either leader. There may be middle ways, but it will take all his legendary political skills to find them.

This is a moment to think long-term. He has said that he wants a career after politics and he intends authorising a biography. In it he will want to show that he left an overall political legacy that he can be proud of.

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