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Why Peter Robinson's successor(s) will have big job to fill his shoes

The First Minister will be remembered for helping to bring the DUP to the very centre of Northern Irish politics - and whomever replaces him will struggle to match his significant achievements, writes Jon Tonge

Published 20/11/2015

Peter Robinson
Peter Robinson

The departure of Peter Robinson is a significant loss to the DUP. Once seen as a 'crazy' engaged in stunts such as the invasion of Clontibret, Robinson matured, mellowed and developed formidable skills.

He provided the brains behind the Paisley bombast. Surrounding himself with an impressive, even forensic, team, including special adviser Richard Bullick, Robinson nailed down the details of the St Andrews Agreement, which paved the way for the DUP to share - or divide - power with Sinn Fein.

He has chosen his time of departure; for many political leaders, departure chooses them

From 2003, when the DUP overtook the UUP in Assembly seats, Robinson and his team located within the DUP policy unit paved the way for a renegotiated successor to the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) - even if, the major exception of Sinn Fein support for policing aside, the son of GFA looked remarkably like the parent. It took Robinson's skills to help finalise a deal that could be sold to a wary party membership, nearly half of whom still do not believe there is a lasting peace in Northern Ireland.

Following that momentous deal Robinson then quickly ousted Paisley (although the latter could have stayed if he had truly wanted) and helped achieve the devolution of policing and justice - a significant legacy.

He kept the Stormont show on the road, survived extraordinary personal and political crises and ended his career on a mini-high, winning significant finance via the Fresh Start deal.

Relations with Martin McGuinness were pragmatic and business-like, befitting two leaders with strong control over their organisations. In a top-down party, few crossed Robinson.

Perhaps his biggest legacy is what he delivered for his party. While anti-Good Friday Agreement sentiment prompted widespread defections of UUP supporters and members, Robinson has ensured that few have returned - yet - and also quelled a possible TUV challenge. The DUP's 38 Assembly seats - surely a high-water mark - is testimony to that. The DUP hoovered up the talent within the UUP and Robinson helped them feel comfortable in their new organisation.

He also helped broaden his party, although much work remains to be done. The Free Presbyterian dominance of old is much diminished but still remains (just) the largest category of member. Catholic membership is below 1%. Two-thirds of the membership believe homosexuality is wrong. Most oppose abortion. Robinson had no desire for the DUP to become a liberal, secular party, and nor is it. Most members are regular church attendees and only 3% are non-religious. Asked how much faith and church should influence his party, Robinson said 10/10 for faith but that he did not wish a "particular church" to dominate. In widening the Protestant denominational composition, Robinson steered the DUP, but only slightly, towards a more normal Christian democratic party of the type found in other European countries.

In terms of the successor, Arlene Foster is the obvious choice as First Minister. There is much talk of a split ticket, with Nigel Dodds as party leader. This has its attractions in uniting the ex-UUP arrivistes of the 2000s and old guard wings of the DUP. Dodds would reassure the base, but he is on record in the interview for our book as saying: "You have to be in the Assembly to be party leader."

The DUP would not want to call a risky by-election in North Belfast to get Dodds in in May 2016.

The leader is chosen by a small selectorate of MPs and MLAs, plus the solitary MEP, with endorsement by the party executive. Foster makes sense on a number of grounds. She would broaden the party's appeal. The DUP attracts more male than female voters and she may attract more women to a party in which they are woefully under-represented, comprising only 28% of the membership. She brings a strong dislike of Sinn Fein, but intelligence and pragmatism means she will do business, like Robinson. At 45 she also offers relative youth, even if her elevation hardly represents the 'creche start' offered by the SDLP in appointing 32-year-old Colum Eastwood.

The new leader faces significant challenges. The post-2016 Stormont Executive may see much more significant opposition than is currently the case, where it appears at times that Jim Allister is the only scrutineer.

The DUP's acquisition of votes from the UUP may be impermanent as the latter continues its revival under Mike Nesbitt. The unseemly rotation for DUP ministers in recent weeks did the party little credit.

Two-thirds of DUP voters at the 2015 general election said they "strongly like" or "like" the UUP, so some could conceivably defect. Much will depend upon the DUP achieving the governing competence and internal cohesion usually associated with Robinson. The days of perma-loyalty to a particular unionist party are probably over. The conditional loyalty so long associated with unionism and loyalism also applies to voter selection of their favoured party.

Jon Tonge is author of The Democratic Unionist Party

Belfast Telegraph

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