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Peter Robinson's departure will leave DUP with big shoes to fill

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 19/11/2015

Peter Robinson
Peter Robinson

When Peter Robinson steps down as First Minister and leader of the DUP - probably after Christmas - it will bring to an end a political career spanning almost 40 years. It will also create quite a void at the very pinnacle of Northern Ireland politics, which will be difficult to fill.

For his greatest strength, even in his early firebrand days, was as a strategist, a man who could see the main picture and what it would take to achieve his aims. And that indeed could be his legacy. For he has helped set out a blueprint which could see a streamlined Executive with fewer departments and an Assembly with fewer members, but with a functioning opposition.

Given the current electoral supremacy of the DUP and Sinn Fein, the smaller nationalist and unionist parties may well have more to gain from being a vocal opposition than effectively neutered partners in government.

Peter Robinson has come a long way from his early days in politics, when his dark glasses and strident voice of protest gave him a rather sinister appearance. His talent as an organiser and strategist was recognised early by the then DUP leader Ian Paisley, and he was at the forefront of protests against the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

His flirtation with the Ulster Resistance movement and leading a mob across the border to assault gardai in Co Monaghan might not have marked him out as a future politician of stature, but he played a major role in helping the DUP become the dominant unionist party with a succession of crushing victories at the polls.

And in recent times he has shown himself, certainly in local political terms, as a statesmanlike figure, determined to retain devolution but equally determined to make it work better. His relationship with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness is seen as workmanlike rather than warm, yet both have shown a willingness to stand and act together when the occasion demanded it. The gestures they made - for example, Mr McGuinness denouncing the terrorists who shot two soldiers at Massereene as "traitors", Mr Robinson attending a GAA game or attending the wake of Michaela McAreavey along with three party colleagues - were hugely significant in demonstrating a desire to reach out beyond their natural constituencies.

On a personal level, there is no doubt that his role is now placing a heavy demand on Mr Robinson, and he is right to want younger people with new ideas to come through.

Politics in Northern Ireland can have a corrosive effect on anyone, and impasses such as on finding a solution to the problems of the past owe not a little to the fact that many of those trying to solve the riddle formed their ideas in that very same past.

The puzzle now for the DUP - the posts of First Minister and party leader are to be split - is to have a seamless succession in time to fight the Assembly elections next Spring. It is important for everyone that those chosen continue to build on the foundations laid for a properly functioning devolved administration.

Belfast Telegraph

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