A top Irish civil servant questioned Peter Robinson’s ability to face down unionist “bigots” during a hard-hitting critique of his leadership.
According to a leaked cable, Sean Aylward claimed Mr Robinson lacked the clout of previous DUP leader Ian Paisley and was struggling to mount the courage to face down hardline figures within unionism. The confidential dispatch also quotes a second civil servant as stating that he was having difficulty grasping the mantle of leadership.
The candid remarks were recorded during a meeting between US diplomat Pamela Spratlen and senior Irish government officials in October 2008, just months after Robinson became leader of the party.
Those present included Mr Aylward, secretary general at the Department of Justice; Rory Montgomery, political director at the Department for Foreign Affairs; and Maire Flanagan from the Office of Taoiseach.
The meeting came during another stalemate in the peace process, with the parties struggling to agree a deal for the devolution of policing and justice powers.
At one point, the discussion focused on Mr Robinson, who had taken over as DUP leader and First Minister earlier in the year. According to the cable – written by Robert Faucher, the Deputy Chief of Mission at the US State Department – Mr Aylward questioned his leadership.
The cable states: “He (Aylward) described DUP leader Peter Robinson as lacking the clout of former leader Ian Paisley in being able to bring disparate elements of the unionist community together, characterising Robinson as a man who is trying to get up the nerve to jump in the face of small groups of hardline unionist ‘bigots’, who are ‘difficult to cajole or persuade’ and are just waiting for an excuse to try to drag Robinson down.”
Mr Montgomery, meanwhile, touched on the fragmented state of unionism, contrasting its struggles with Sinn Fein’s ability to engage the republican community in the peace process.
“Robinson is constantly looking over his shoulder at his political competitors in Montgomery’s view,” the dispatch adds.
The meeting came as the DUP and Sinn Fein were pushing to agree a deal on devolving policing and justice.
The Executive had not met for four months, amid rows over the delay in fixing a date for the powers to be transferred and warnings that Northern Ireland’s credibility on the international stage was being damaged by the impasse.
Despite the stalemate, officials were confident the issue would eventually be resolved.
However, Mr Montgomery voiced concern at an “underlying inability” of political leaders and the public to overcome their “emotional baggage and lack of trust”.