After the scandals, Peter Robinson bounces back
A year ago his career was on the line, now the DUP leader is in confident mood again
The DUP faithful will be gathering for its annual conference this weekend after a turbulent year that nearly swept away its First Minister leader.
In a remarkable turnaround of fortunes, Peter Robinson and the party are heading for the La Mon Hotel in an upbeat mood, exuding nothing but confidence about next May's Assembly elections.
“We have come through a difficult period but the important part of that sentence is that we've come through it,” Mr Robinson told the Belfast Telegraph yesterday.
“A difficult period” is putting it mildly. Within weeks of last year's conference, also held at the La Mon, the Iris Robinson scandal broke.
Mr Robinson had to contend with public exposure of his MP wife's affair with a 19-year-old, and her role in obtaining £50,000 from two developers for her lover's business.
At one point he stood aside from his First Minister duties, prompting speculation that he would not be back.
In the midst of the tumult, fraught negotiations were held at Hillsborough Castle on devolving policing and justice powers. A deal with Sinn Fein was struck, despite a wobble among DUP MLAs.
Then came the General Election, and Mr Robinson's loss of the East Belfast seat he had held since 1979. Once again obituaries for his political career were being prepared.
In a pre-conference interview yesterday, Mr Robinson said the party had emerged “strongly” from the past year.
“We are still the major voice of unionism and we are going into an Assembly election in a very strong position,” he added. “There is a good spirit within the party.”
There is still unfinished business from the scandal that engulfed Mrs Robinson.
Her husband yesterday said: “In the next number of months, there will be reports which I think will clear away some of that debris and give people a better understanding of what the facts were.”
That's a reference to a police investigation into Mrs Robinson, and an investigation into the 2008 award of a Castlereagh Council lease to her lover. “I expect both the police investigation and the council investigation to wrap up fairly soon,” the DUP leader added.
The current confidence in the party stems in no small part from its General Election results away from East Belfast.
It retained its other eight seats, seeing off Jim Allister's Traditional Unionist Voice and the ill-fated UUP-Tory experiment.
Mr Robinson has also been projecting a buoyant image in recent months with a series of showpiece speeches.
There were whispers in the summer about him being jaded and out-of-sorts. He acknowledges that a holiday in Florida made a difference, after a year of almost non-stop work and the added pressures that events had brought.
“It's going to tell and a bit of a break obviously does you good,” he stated.
Mr Robinson said his wife is making progress battling her well-publicised psychiatric problems, although there are “good days and bad days”.
On his longer-term career plans, he said he has not given any consideration to an appropriate date for eventually handing over the DUP leadership.
He also said: “I'd always sort of promised myself that retirement would be around retirement age.”
With his 62nd birthday next month, that would mean a new DUP leader in place for the 2015 Assembly poll?
All he would say to that was: “Who knows?”