Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 28 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Lost in the Maze - DUP can keep winning elections but Peter Robinson has to stand down as leader

Poll battle: Peter Robinson should avoid the electoral damage done to the UUP when voters turned on then leader David Trimble
Poll battle: Peter Robinson should avoid the electoral damage done to the UUP when voters turned on then leader David Trimble

When the Assembly returns next month, it will go into immediate election mode. The Euro election is due next May, followed by the council elections (possibly on the same day), a General Election in 2015 and an Assembly election in 2016.

Peter Robinson's letter to his MPs and MLAs is a “ding-ding” letter: ding-ding, seconds out, clear the ring and prepare for combat. Because the next 30-odd months are going to be one long, very long, election cycle, during which very little will be done, because no party will want to give any hostages to fortune.

Even at this very early stage, one thing seems pretty certain: Peter Robinson will not be First Minister or DUP leader for much longer. He has allowed himself to be spooked.

Yes, the man who spent most of his life orchestrating protests against the policies and leaders of rival unionist parties finds himself the target of their protests. And, boy, has it unsettled him.

The man who had seen off electoral challenges from the UUP, TUV, PUP and Ukip now seems to have buckled and rolled over at the prospect of an anti-Maze petition signed by thousands at flag/parade protests and Twelfth celebrations. Worse still, his party-political opponents have been joined by the Orange Order and by many victims' groups.

Will the letter be enough to save Robinson and the DUP? Well, in one fell swoop it has removed the Maze “shrine” as a rallying-point for his opponents, but it has also damaged him personally, as it's hard to escape the conclusion he shifted under pressure.

And, in shifting, he lost his reputation for being in control of his own agenda and strategy. Some of those who have organised recent protests, or have been involved in riots, may assume that their pressure and violence delivered dividends. Will they be tempted to put even more pressure on him?

Some of his own usually loyal supporters — and that will include people on his payroll, as well as elected members who came in on low, or final, counts — will also be wondering if they will suffer at council and Assembly elections.

Once they get it into their heads that he is an electoral liability, they will inevitably distance themselves and begin to ally themselves with potential successors. It's probably happening already.

Even before the letter was published, newspapers and TV and radio programmes were discussing future leaders. In other words, a post-Peter DUP is no longer a taboo subject.

Ironically, the Unionist Forum was set up to avoid this very situation. The DUP circled the wagons and roped in rivals and allies to try to curb the excesses of flag protesters, some “new voices” in loyalism and a revivalist PUP.

The aim, I presume (certainly from the DUP's perspective), was to keep a paternal foot on the neck of some and a strong arm around the shoulders of others. And, yet, it is the DUP which proved to be out of step and out of touch.

What will most concern the DUP is the possibility of electoral damage. But the party has a number of things in its favour.

The first is that their rivals don't, in fact, have a common strategy on the Maze. Some don't want a potential “shrine” anywhere, while others just don't want it at the Maze. The UUP/TUV/PUP/Ukip will also be fighting each other at elections and it won't be long until differences emerge.

The only way in which real electoral damage can be done to the DUP is if a substantial chunk of their vote went to just one of their rivals. But that's unlikely to happen: anti-DUP votes would probably be scattered across those four parties, meaning that the DUP should be able to keep seat-losses to an acceptable minimum.

What the party needs to avoid is the prospect of an anti-Robinson vote doing greater damage than an anti-DUP vote. It's what happened to the UUP back in 2003, when evidence suggested that significant numbers of former voters were voting against David Trimble, rather than against the UUP. Too many strategists in the party refused to recognise that fact until too much damage had been done.

My hunch is that Robinson will not allow that to happen to the party he — more so than Ian Paisley — helped to build. Better, perhaps, he may conclude, to stand down voluntarily at the start of an election cycle, rather than be forced out on the back of bad results further down the line — particularly if he was to blame for the losses.

He doesn't want to take brickbats from either Jim Allister or Mike Nesbitt, both of whom would be delighted if his personal unpopularity played into their hands. And the period after the Haass talks presents him with a perfect exit timetable.

The DUP clearly has problems, but they are not of the scale, or nature, of those which faced Trimble. It has no well-organised primary rival breathing down its neck.

The greatest legacy Peter Robinson could leave the DUP with is the timing and ending of his leadership. If he wants to secure the future of the party he loves, then he needs to walk away. And soon.

Alex Kane is a commentator and writer @AlexKane221b

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