Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

How Peter Robinson has morphed to fully occupy the middle ground

First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson arrives at the count in Newtownards Leisure Centre in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections.

The significant big winner in the Assembly elections is moderacy. Never before was an election fought so respectfully between the major unionist and nationalist power blocs and never before was the result such a sweeping victory for the power of positive thinking.

The plaudits are raining down on Peter Robinson, although Martin McGuinness also deserves much credit. With apologies to Jose Mourinho, Mr Robinson has now become the "Special One" of Northern Ireland politics.

I put down much of the Special One's success to "morphing." Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were the first to recognise the art of morphing, the day they foreswore violence as a means to a political end, donned their Armani suits, polished their shoes, began wearing business ties and ensured that they were well-groomed for media appearances.

"Morphing" is defined as a technique employed in films and television whereby one image is transformed seamlessly into another before your eyes.

Thus the beast becomes a beauty. A snarling animal in a cartoon film is transformed into a cuddly bear. Most famously, Clark Kent goes in one door and comes out another as Superman.

So successful have they been at morphing, Messrs Adams and McGuinness and many others in Sinn Fein are virtually unrecognisable from their previous lives.

However, they are eclipsed today by the astounding transformation in the fortunes of Peter Robinson.

Mr Robinson began to morph last summer when he met his fate in the Westminster election in East Belfast at the hands of the Alliance party's Naomi Long. Her victory in a heartland of Protestant Ulster proved beyond doubt that hard-line unionism was fading in popularity.

Nearly everybody it seemed wanted the peace to last and the bickering to end.

The unionist community didn't demand Peter Robinson to chuckle like his predecessor but they did believe the time had come to smile, to live and let live, to show a bit more generosity of spirit, to stop staring blankly at the other side and start working collectively for something better.

Mr Robinson, with his astute antennae twitching, appears to have got the message and acted swiftly upon it. As a consequence, one year on from losing his seat at Westminster, he has morphed into the most popular politician in Northern Ireland with more first preference votes than even Sinn Fein's mightiest figures.

The results of the Assembly election are a testimony to how Peter Robinson has taken the Democratic Unionist Party on a long march from Protestant extremism towards the middle ground of unionism. In doing so, he has usurped the role of the Ulster Unionist Party, taken the ground from beneath its feet and left it pondering about its future role.

The Ulster Unionists may have passed the point of no return. Caught between the devil of the DUP and the clear blue sea of the Alliance party, they find themselves in a political no-man's land, their vision and strategy effectively stolen by their opponents.

They come across as more of a disparate collection of individuals than a cohesive political force. Some are so traditionally unionist no one would notice if they said they were in the DUP. The more liberal must go to bed at night wondering if the Alliance party are more in line with their political thoughts.

The SDLP's fortunes are faring no better. The party continues to suffer from the morphing of Sinn Fein, leaving as many question marks over its leadership as that of the Ulster Unionists. If Tom Elliott lacks the communication skills needed for televised debates so too does Margaret Ritchie. No matter the level of conviction in their voices, neither is a natural television performer, essential for a political leader in today's world.

So when we cut through all the percentage ups and downs of the various parties, where are we now? The outcome of the Assembly election shows that Northern Ireland is rejecting hard-line unionism and nationalism as never before.

The only way the two major parties have achieved their dominance is by morphing into something quite different from their origins, talking about a shared future and refusing to engage in the old-style combative politics.

The people of Northern Ireland have had their say. Correction. Less than six in ten bothered to have their say.

The biggest party in Northern Ireland is not the DUP or Sinn Fein but the "Couldn't care less, Don't give a toss, Browned off with politics, Plague on all your houses" party. This Apathy party scored its biggest share ever of the non-vote.

Devolution has only half-hearted support in Northern Ireland. A big drop in the electoral turnout figure is no vote of confidence.

It sends out a clear message from the disillusioned that the next Stormont Executive needs to perform a great deal better than the last.

To get themselves to where they are today, the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein have morphed into quite different beings from what they were before.

To get to where they are today, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, needed to reject the hardline unionist and republican messages of their respective pasts. That is progress.

The Assembly election results show that Northern Ireland continues to move in the right direction.

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