Belfast Telegraph

How Robinson showed he is the great survivor

A year on from the scandal that drained him physically and threatened his career, the DUP leader's turnaround has been remarkable, argues Malachi O'Doherty

It seemed, a year ago, as if the entire political and media culture here had changed.

Suddenly we were discussing the sex lives and hang-ups of politicians. We were also joking about them, for no moral sanction against laughter can ever keep it in check when those who want our admiration display human frailty.

The first surprise was that the Robinson marriage was in jeopardy. Our First Minister invited television crews into his home so he might read them a statement saying his wife had been unfaithful but that he had forgiven her.

Some were impressed by the personal candour of a man who was better known for his forensic thinking and his temper. Others noticed the black marks on the pages, where his statement had been edited into shape, illustrating that this was, of course, a tactical presentation, fashioned as professionally as any other crucial speech he had ever made.

What followed swiftly afterwards - the disclosure that Iris's lover was a young man and that she had used her contacts to set him up in business - lifted spirits around the world. It was all so amazing.

The news coincided with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams coming out to say his own father had been a paedophile - this as part of manoeuvres to evade criticism for having continued to help his brother Liam, who was subject to complaints from his own daughter. Those complaints now form the basis of a prosecution against Liam Adams.

Suddenly it seemed that for years to come we would be discussing sex and secrecy in high places. And that, in itself, was a welcome prospect, for it would have been a change from the sectarian focus of past decades.

And sex scandals are so much easier for the public to appreciate than scandals around finance or political machinations.

That, a year later, we are not talking about sex and politics any more indicates two things - that the sexual secrets of our politicians, if there are any, are still under wraps, and that the changed political culture that freed us up to put sex first hasn't really developed.

Several rumours shuffled around the undergrowth but they didn't break through into open media discussion and withered away.

And at the very height of the scandals last year political crisis returned and we were suddenly back to the high brinkmanship of peace processing around the question of whether policing and justice powers might be devolved to Stormont. This was more of the old stuff, tedious and exasperating and yet horribly familiar, though for those who had got addicted to political tension it was another fix.

For a time it looked as if the two political cultures were at odds with each other, that the scandals would damage the leaders of the two parties which were now at loggerheads, Sinn Fein and the DUP.

Some even speculated that political moves by sinister forces had brought the scandals into the open.

Instead we got an absorbing demonstration of the ability of our lead parties to survive powerful shocks. The great survivor of that period is Peter Robinson.

Gerry Adams has shifted his base to Co Louth, perhaps executing a master stroke, perhaps saving his hide before an Assembly election which will inevitably focus on the Hunger Strikes since it falls on May 5, the anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands.

Adams stands accused by former H Block campaigners of prolonging the hunger strike for political advantage.

And Robinson took hard knocks too, before he straightened himself up. The most shocking event in the political calendar was his loss of temper during an interview with Seamus McKee.

But he survived because he is a deft mover.

Under pressure to resign during the Iris scandal, he stood aside as leader, ostensibly to concentrate on clearing his own name, then plunged into talks with Sinn Fein and the two governments on policing and justice.

Only for a moment did he look like a humbled leader clearing a little space for himself.

He would actually be busier than ever in the following weeks.

Then he pulled a stroke in the talks. To get his party doubters onside he brought a demand for the removal of the Parades Commission into the game.

It looked as if he was reaping gains for Orangeism in return for a political concession. The laugh of it was that when the Orange Order declined the change and the Parades Commission was restored, nobody even noticed that this showed Robinson had been playing poker with monopoly money. The charade had appeased his doubters.

He lost his seat in the General Election but he has rebranded himself as a secular leader of all of unionism. When he proclaimed a commitment to working for integrated education he rattled the Catholic Church which saw this as a sectarian attack yet heartened the liberal secularists who want this kind of change.

He goes into the coming election with a chance of swallowing up the Ulster Unionist Party and shifting the DUP to the centre. For someone who, a year ago, was pleading for credibility as it drained out of him, this is pretty impressive.

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