Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 30 October 2014

Is Robinson looking for an exit strategy?

The 2011 Assembly elections represented a high-water mark for the DUP leader. But, two years on, is his heart still in it, asks Alex Kane

On May 6, 2011 – the day after the Assembly election – Peter Robinson seemed to be master of all he surveyed. The DUP had gained a couple of MLAs, rather than, as most pundits had predicted, lost some.

It had its highest-ever tally of councillors. The DUP had also done well at the 2010 General Election (the only loss being his own seat) and had seen off the challenge from Jim Allister in the 2009 Euro battle.

On the home front, he had withstood a host of personal and psychological challenges: he had been through fire, almost to the very gates of hell and seemed to have emerged a stronger, more rounded man.

In October 2010, he was even winning over former critics, when he talked about the need to end the "benign apartheid" which underpinned our education system and divided our children from an early age.

He was leaving the UUP looking like the hardline party: assisted, it has to be said, by what looked like the anti-gay, anti-GAA language of Tom Elliott.

He seemed, too, to be planting a foot on Alliance territory and, like David Trimble before him, establishing a base-camp on the middle ground.

Some critics believed that this born-again pluralism was genuine; a response, if you like, to the pain and isolation of the previous 18 months – a time when he may have thought that his political career was over.

Some thought that the 'change in Peter' had to do with a man who had reached that point in his life when he was wondering how history would judge him; what legacy he was leaving for others to pick over.

More cynical voices insisted that it was mere optics and strategy, built around the possibility that the Cameron/Clegg coalition would come crashing down pretty quickly and that looking moderate and redeemed would make it easier to win back his beloved East Belfast seat from Naomi Long.

In September 2012, at a jointly-hosted Ulster Covenant dinner with the UUP, he spoke confidently, persuasively and proudly about the Union and unionism.

He looked and sounded upbeat. He had, to all intents and purposes, gatecrashed a party which should have been a highlight for the UUP: the party of Carson and Craig; the breakers of Home Rule; the founders of Northern Ireland; the former leaders of the Unionist monolith.

Not only did he gatecrash it, he also hijacked the headlines and agenda with his speech about a new Council for the Union.

So, yes, May 6, 2011, was a good day for him. The party he had been instrumental in building was now THE party of unionism.

The TUV had been reduced to Jim Allister and a few councillors. The UUP had recorded its lowest-ever share of votes and seats.

The PUP was statistically irrelevant and the bulk of unionist independents had been swept away. He was now strong enough and comfortable enough to talk about "reaching out" beyond the ranks of both the traditional unionist vote and the traditional DUP vote.

He had made the DUP a comfortable party for people who would never have imagined being able to vote for it.

Yet look at him now. Where has the confidence gone? Where has that sense of being in control of the agenda gone? Where has the total control of his party gone? Where has the liberal, pluralist, touchy-feely Peter gone?

It's like that moment from Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, when the aliens first embed themselves and perfectly ordinary people begin to behave in an extraordinary, out-of-character way.

The problem for Robinson is that he seems to be finding it increasingly difficult to counter criticism that, for all of the propaganda about having delivered a better, fairer deal, it's a deal which isn't actually doing anything for mainstream unionism, loyalist/working-class unionism, or the growing numbers who have simply disengaged and opted out.

Indeed, his almost splenetic attack on his Maze critics suggests new depths of personal/ psychological vulnerability and irritability. Instead of providing evidence of success, he has – like so many unionist leaders before him – retreated to a world of kneejerk reactions, wagon-circling and spat-picking.

He has, also like Trimble before him, now allowed his agenda to be dictated by others and, instead of trumpeting the quite strong position in which unionism finds itself, has become a champion of mopery and whinge.

And there's something else, too: looking at him, particularly his eyes and his body language, it's hard to avoid the sense that this is a man whose heart is no longer in the job. He had his high-point moment back in May 2011 and now, almost two years later, he looks bored, tetchy, disappointed and in search of an exit strategy.

It isn't going to get any better for him: the chance to reinvent himself has gone. Yes, as a tactician, he was clearly responsible for outfoxing and outmanoeuvring his unionist opponents (helped, on many occasions, by their lack of tactics). But his victories have been for the DUP, rather than for wider unionism.

Will he stay as leader and First Minister until the next Assembly election? Hmm. I think if he can find an exit, he will take it.

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