Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Was First Minister a prisoner of hardliners?

Peter Robinson

If the world, and potential investors, needed reminding that Northern Ireland was still an unstable place, Peter Robinson provided it on Tuesday.

The threat to call a general election on the issue of prison service emblems is unlikely to be fulfilled. Yet the fact that it was made at all is evidence that, on a clear day, a political storm can break out that would plunge the province into uncertainty and possibly even conflict.

Financiers say that "capital is a coward." Investors like societies that are safe, stable and profitable over the long term. By and large Northern Ireland is now seen that way. All those shots of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness smiling and laughing together sent the message that the old animosities that fuelled the conflict were softening and no longer posed a major threat.

The show of unity by Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson in the US helped project our image as an open and forward looking society, as did events like the MTV awards. Calling an election on prison emblems could only undermine that good work.

It signals that, beneath the smiling surface of politics, the old sectarian and constitutional issues that plunged us into conflict are the ones that still count most with politicians. It also shows that Jim Allister, head of a tiny party, is a man with the ability to make the DUP jump.

In cold political terms it wasn't necessary to threaten meltdown. There is no doubt that, under the St Andrews Agreement, the DUP can veto the dropping of royal emblems at Executive level. It is a cross-cutting issue which affects both communities. There was no need for all the drama.

Yet Mr Robinson's threat wasn't an off the cuff remark, or something he got bounced into. It was a calculated move and camera crews had been summoned to hear him deliver the sound bite.

The move may have been calculated partly to deny Mr Allister a platform on issues to rail against at his TUV conference on Saturday and also to avoid any appearance of weakness on Mr Robinson's part during the run up to the DUP conference next week.

The DUP are conducting private polling and this may have been the sort of issue on which they wanted to reassure key supporters by taking a strong, unequivocal stance. It was also an opportunity to put Alliance, which gained ground in the last election and holds the Justice ministry, in its place.

Yet with the next election in 2014, it is hard to understand why, even in narrow party terms, the DUP felt the need to react so strongly. This will all have blown over and been resolved by the time they next go to the polls.

In the case of the court service, there has been some reduction in Royal insignia without removing it all together.

After some initial grumbling everyone, unionists and nationalists, seems to be able to live with that.

Compromises and accommodations on such issues are far better for our image, not to mention our social cohesion, than escalation or public showdowns. Hopefully this latest spat will subside before it registers abroad.

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