Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 27 November 2014

Robinson made the DUP electable

Chris Thornton examines how Peter Robinson doggedly engineered the modern DUP

Ian Paisley made the DUP. Peter Robinson made it electable.

It was in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement that the next leader of the Democratic Unionists - soon to be Northern Ireland's third First Minister - made his best case for succeeding Dr Paisley.

As the DUP's director of elections, Mr Robinson masterminded the DUP's advance in new electoral territory. Dr Paisley had built the party into a formidable force, but Mr Robinson refined it into a machine that could pick up votes in sections of the unionist electorate that had been previously put off by Paisleyism.

Effectively, he figured out ways to doggedly carve out Ulster Unionist votes. Starting with the South Antrim by-election in September 2000, the DUP went into UUP strongholds and began to take their votes.

They used a variety of tactics - keeping Dr Paisley relatively low profile in places like Templepatrick, for example, but mainly by attacking David Trimble relentlessly.

The momentum started in 2000 eventually sucked away thousands of UUP votes and propelled the DUP to becoming the largest party in Northern Ireland. It's something of an irony that it was opposition to the Good Friday Agreement has catapulted Mr Robinson to the highest position set up by that document.

It was the string of election victories that virtually ended debate about the DUP's succession, because Mr Robinson was the obvious heir apparent.

At the same time, he paid close attention to the DUP's internal structures. Robinson supporters wound up in several key positions.

But the Paisley leadership was so central to the party that Mr Robinson had to bide his time - there was no question of a leadership challenge.

"Peter's the man," said one frustrated supporter several years ago. "But it's hard to be the man when you don't have the final say."

But Mr Robinson's prominence in forging the new DUP - an efficient election machine - means that many in the party are already familiar with the style of their next leader. He'll never be a Paisley - but they think they can count on him to keep on engineering victory.

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