Belfast Telegraph

Deal or no deal, Peter Robinson's role key before finally bowing out

By Liam Clarke

Is Peter Robinson the new David Trimble? Or is he the new Ian Paisley? The Trimble analogy - a leader under internal pressure for compromising - attracts some DUP members and former members.

Ruth Patterson, the hardline Belfast councillor who got passed over for an Assembly co-option, was one of the DUP stalwarts who was hardest on Lord Trimble as he struggled to maintain a partnership with Sinn Fein.

She talked of the former Ulster Unionist leader being "hounded out of office for far less" than Mr Robinson is now contemplating.

On the other wing of unionism Jenny Palmer, a former UUP member who defected to the DUP in 2005, felt the same.

She now regrets having sided with the DUP and has returned to the UUP fold.

The analogy isn't perfect.

Mr Robinson is under no public pressure to quit - no major party figure has openly raised a voice against him.

Lord Trimble suffered public defiance and eventual defection from major figures like Jeffrey Donaldson and Arlene Foster. About a quarter of DUP members are former UUPers, many from that period.

There has been no such attrition against Mr Robinson.

Though there is a general view that he is nearing the end of his political career and probably won't stand next May, the DUP needs him around to either do a deal or fail.

Most hope he will succeed.

In that sense he is more like Ian Paisley than David Trimble. The DUP opposed the Good Friday Agreement, for which Trimble got the Nobel Peace Prize, and toppled him when the IRA ignored him on decommissioning.

We now know Sinn Fein had decided he couldn't deliver, that he would always be vulnerable to DUP pressure, and only Paisley could do a deal that stuck.

Republicans are not writing Robinson off. He is still their best chance. It would have been dangerous for a new leader to sign the St Andrews Agreement, which preceded Dr Paisley's decision to share power with Martin McGuinness.

If Dr Paisley had died sooner - and there were health scares - it would have been tempting for hardliners to rally against Mr Robinson on the grounds that "the Doc" would be turning in his grave.

Robinson realised that and backed Dr Paisley, as potential new leaders of the DUP must back Robinson in negotiations. It is much better if he reaches an agreement with Sinn Fein and then leaves it to a successor to implement.

If he fails it is also easier for a successor to deal with the fallout, but failure would be a serious setback.

So, the DUP needs Mr Robinson to perform this one last service, and so does Sinn Fein. Republicans do not see someone easier to deal with waiting in the sidelines.

Equally, the DUP needs someone with his confidence, strategic insight and authority in the party to make the shift; his critics and rivals need that as much as his friends. The British Government also still believes it needs him, and that all increases his leverage.

Like Dr Paisley, there are concerns about his health. There were severe fears for Dr Paisley's life in 2004, but his medication for a leaking heart valve was changed and he survived another 10 years to the ripe old age of 88. Mr Robinson is 21 years younger than that, but it is still a time to take stock.

He previously hinted that he would go about 65; he will be 67 in December. He told me in August that the legacy he hoped for was winning back the East Belfast Westminster seat, which he lost to Alliance, getting Stormont stabilised, and paving the way for the devolution of corporation tax.

The first was achieved by his protege Gavin Robinson in May and the other two are bound up with the current negotiations.

We shall soon know if he can manage it.

Belfast Telegraph

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