Land deals and TV tirades; Is Robinson now a liability?
Has Peter Robinson become more of a liability than an asset as First Minister and leader of the Democratic Unionist party?
We will only know the answer to that question when the votes are counted after May 6 but he must be causing a few flutters of concern.
Like Gerry Adams, the First Minister finds himself dealing with matters from beyond the grave. The deceased property developer Fred Fraser’s generosity towards the Robinsons — to Iris a £25,000 cheque and to Peter a piece of land for a fiver — has rebounded on them.
Peter Robinson has said he made no significant gain as a result of the gift of land whatsoever and he did not receive one penny advantage as a result of that ‘sliver’ of ground. He said he did not require it for access to his own land for which he was paid the market value.
I knew Fred Fraser possibly even before Peter Robinson did. Fraser was a self-made man, who started by building his own first home and became a property tycoon.
I recall being present on a Saturday afternoon in the late 1970s when he invited Gloria Hunniford to open the show house of one of his most expensive and ambitious ventures in Belfast’s
Deramore Park South. At that time, Fraser maintained a low profile and shunned personal publicity.
In private meetings and telephone calls with him, I formed the opinion that he was a tough businessman. His homes occupied whole pages of property advertising in the Belfast Telegraph
and he would think nothing of ringing to complain about even the slightest typographic error.
Much of the developer’s empire was built upon the borough of Castlereagh as an Alliance councillor for the area, Geraldine Rice recently recalled to the Belfast Telegraph. She said: “Thousands of houses were put up over the years. They were not built in tens or twelves, they were built in hundreds and they were all Fraser developments.
“I was not against development, but it should have been balanced. The proper infrastructure was not in place and there were no community facilities.”
We have observed a series of contrasting Peter Robinson performances on our television screens in recent months. Which, if any, will influence the electorate of east Belfast?
Voters can choose from at least three Peter Robinsons. The contrite Peter Robinson as evidenced in his extraordinary soul-bearing, tear-jerking response to the BBC’s Spotlight revelations about his wife. The polite Peter Robinson in the public presence of the British and Irish leaders, presenting the best face of the Hillsborough deal in March. And finally, the “I’m right” Peter Robinson, when he delivered an extraordinary tirade against the BBC in his 25 minute interview with Seamus McKee.
At times I thought I was watching the cruel “Folks on the Hill” caricature of Robinson rather than the man himself, as he flew off the handle at one of BBC Northern Ireland’s most experienced and respected voices. Some viewers may have been shocked at the First Minister’s behaviour but I’m afraid many inside and outside the DUP, not least in the media world, would have recognised a Peter Robinson they had seen many times before.
For anyone gullible enough to believe that the First Minister is a mild-mannered, easy-going, jokea-minute MP, the veil was truly lifted. Watching his performance with Seamus McKee, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of relationship he has within his Executive? Certainly team spirit does not spring to mind. Heaven help the lot of them in the Executive.
Peter Robinson has defended his relationship with Fred Frazer and said he was a ‘good personal friend’. He saw no problems with having that friendship and denied it would cast doubt upon a politician of his standing. He said he knew hundreds of businessmen and when they approach him he gives them all the help he can.
As for Fraser, I’m hardly alone in Northern Ireland in finding the First Minister’s response on the BBC far from convincing. Questions about the Robinsons’ links with the property developer will not go away.
Peter Robinson claims a BBC “smear” campaign but he has only himself and his wife to blame for the spotlight thrust upon their affairs. Fraser was not known for the kind of generosity he displayed to both of them. He amassed vast tracts of land in and around Castlereagh over many years. Eventually in 2006 he sold around 80 valuable acres of Castlereagh to the once high-profile developer Michael Taggart.
This was Taggart’s view of Fred Fraser in 2006 when they struck their deal: “He drives a hard bargain, he doesn't suffer fools lightly.”
The question remains as to why a man of Fraser’s hard-nosed reputation should virtually give away a strip of land which had the potential to unlock a profitable return?
Why didn’t he simply sell the land directly in the first place to the developer who wanted it and who subsequently paid another fiver to Peter Robinson for its ownership? And why bother with all the legalities and costly intermediary legal fees over what the First Minister regarded as such an inconsequential piece of earth?
Too many questions remain unconvincingly answered. Too many investigations are incomplete. Too many concerns are unresolved.
Liability or asset? Time will decide but so too should the voters of east Belfast.