Peter Robinson’s leadership of the DUP was facing growing questions last night following his sudden U-turn on support for the Maze peace centre.
In a dramatic climbdown, the First Minister shifted from broad support for the controversial project to insisting it must be put on hold.
And as his party reeled from the volte-face, there were questions over whether Mr Robinson’s authority as leader is now in doubt.
The party yesterday circled the wagons around its leader, who has in any case signalled he might stand down when he is 65, which is next year.
But his turnaround on a pivotal project is likely to unsettle the more reforming wing of the party which Mr Robinson has come to represent — and consolidate the more traditional, hardline members.
Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister welcomed the change, but described it as “a monumental climbdown” and “seismic”.
“The logic of Mr Robinson's analysis of how Sinn Fein is still wedded to justifying terror leads to the obvious question of why he still sustains them in Government?” he asked. Patently, OFMDFM is and will be in disarray over the Maze, which, of course, typifies the paralysis and dysfunctionalism at the heart and top of this failed Government.”
And the DUP leader’s difficulties were also exploited by the more modernising element within unionism, the recently formed NI21.
Its leader Basil McCrea told the Belfast Telegraph: “The DUP is now a post-Robinson party. This is a humiliating retreat for him and the result will be a return to the old-style DUP, which he will be a prisoner of during the coming elections.
“Under almost anybody else, even Arlene Foster, the DUP will be a more right-wing party.
“He seems to have decided to go with the flow of the mounting anger which undoubtedly is in the unionist and loyalist community. The party has decided they cannot hold that, which has resulted in this seismic change.
“In these circumstances, Robinson may be looking for an exit strategy and could even signal as early as his party conference (in the autumn) that he is intending to go, and then make a valedictory speech.
“It has been clear for the last three months that people are positioning themselves in the party. Peter appeared to be trying to fix it for Arlene, but others like Sammy Wilson have been putting down markers with his commissioning of more Union Jack flagpoles on Government buildings.”
SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell said the turnaround was another example of the DUP’s failure to provide real leadership.
“This U-turn on the Maze is very obviously influenced by a decision to play to the gallery of unionist extremism. It is evident that from America, Peter Robinson saw the loyalist mob violence in Belfast city centre at the weekend and decided that he would use the Maze site as a means of appeasing this minority,” he argued.
“It is clear that Peter Robinson also felt the pressure of the TUV leader Jim Allister and needed to appease him also.
“We are walking ourselves into a political crisis,” he added. Ulster Unionist Mike Nesbitt said: “The DUP are very good at blaming others for their own failings and that now extends to their massive U-turn on the Maze.”
Welcoming that Peter Robinson “has finally seen sense”, he said it was a “victory for innocent victims”.
The move was also welcomed by the Orange Order, whose members oppose the Maze plan.