Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

Can Peter Robinson count on middle Ulster to keep him on top?

DUP leader Peter Robinson

By his own admission, Peter Robinson has three years left to make his mark.

The First Minister revealed in last week's BBC documentary of his political career that he was of a mind to bow out by his 65th birthday. Now 62, he runs the risk of being remembered mainly for the family and financial scandal which engulfed his office this time last year.

Lesser men would have wilted and other political leaders would either have fallen on their sword or been ousted by their parties, but Robinson has survived and has undergone a metamorphosis.

To those of us who have observed him since his early days at the knee of Ian Paisley, he is a changed and, at times, unrecognisable figure.

The archive film in the BBC profile reminded us of how far Robinson has travelled, from street-protester to power-sharer. Like Martin McGuinness, he appears a reformed character.

If a road existed between Stormont and Damascus, it would be so trodden upon by now as to need resurfacing.

The old newsreels of Robinson wearing a red Ulster Resistance beret, or wielding a sledgehammer inscribed with the words 'Smash Sinn Fein', reminded us of an era we hope will never be encountered again.

After last year's scandal surrounding his wife, Iris, the rehabilitation of Robinson is now underway in earnest, with an election looming 12 weeks away.

As Robinson cultivates a new, softer-spoken, less abrasive image, his speeches are aimed at middle-Ulster, pulling what remains of any carpet from under the feet of the ailing Ulster Unionist Party.

He is presenting himself as a First Minister reaching out and building bridges. The days when he and McGuinness could barely do eye contact have given way to a more relaxed entente. Not the Chuckle Brothers, nor the Brothers Grim, but somewhere in-between.

How the people of East Belfast view Robinson's rehabilitation and whether they have a more sympathetic view of him now than they did during the Westminster contest, we will only know when the ballot boxes are opened in May.

The BBC documentary did not ask him the hard questions of his leadership which I'm sure he will face during the forthcoming election campaign on the doorsteps of East Belfast.

Assuming he is re-elected as an MLA, will he still be First Minister? The size of the DUP's vote will determine whether he, or McGuinness, occupies the post.

The long-term decline in the overall unionist vote suggests it is only a matter of time before the First Minister's post is lost to republicans and that could be as early as May.

The DUP polled 168,000 votes at the Westminster election, while Sinn Fein emerged as the largest party with 171,000 votes.

On that performance, Robinson's days as First Minister are numbered in weeks, but the DUP did not contest two constituencies and, if the party steals more support from the Ulster Unionists, it can maintain pole position.

The 'master of strategy', as he was described on the BBC, is now pursuing the middle-ground and with it the crucial extra votes required to maintain the DUP's dominance.

Several factors are at play which could determine whether his strategy is successful. For example, many middle-class Protestants are turned off Northern Ireland politics. Can they be won back?

From academics and lawyers to those successful in business and commerce, they are few and far between among Stormont's MLAs.

At the other end of the social spectrum is the disaffected Protestant under-class, which has never recovered from the decline and fall of the shipbuilding, textile and engineering industries, as evident in the depressing streets in some corners of Robinson's own East Belfast constituency.

As First Minister, Robinson has presided over an Executive which has hardly impressed. Virtually every minister has endured criticism of his, or her, performance. Some have been accused of incompetence, of indecision, of making the wrong decision. The controversial budget cuts remain unresolved.

The principal achievement to date of Robinson's Executive is that it has survived in spite of its failings. Of his own personal trauma, he told the BBC: "I still believe the intention was to destroy me."

As of now, a new, reinvigorated Robinson faces yet another election in his long career with a very different message. The extremist-turned-pragmatist still has time to leave his mark.

When the votes are counted we will know if the DUP made the right decision to back Robinson when he appeared down-and-out.

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