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Jon Tonge: Maybe in a decade's time, if an audience at Queen's is listening to Professor Foster's inaugural lecture on devolved government and leadership, the significance of Professor Robinson's contribution might be apparent

Arlene Foster and Peter Robinson at the DUP annual conference in 2015
Arlene Foster and Peter Robinson at the DUP annual conference in 2015
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

An inaugural professorial lecture is not an easy gig. And Professor Peter Robinson faced a particularly tough assignment at Queen's on Thursday night. He knew his every word on leadership would be analysed for the extent to which it backed or criticised the current DUP leader. Arleneology might not yet be a recognised subject at the university but it has plenty of students.

Robinson's verdict on the Irish Language Act 'three-bills-in-one' talks fiasco was brutal - a 'train crash'. It was mainly the passengers who were blamed - pulling the emergency cord and derailing the express. But did Robinson find the driver of the DUP train blameless?

Examining the failure to control rowdy and reluctant passengers with no interest in completing the journey, Robinson - indirectly, obliquely and carefully, of course - offered his successor some advice: "You must be confident that the package you are bringing forward is a good deal… not all your colleagues will want to make the necessary concessions. That's where leadership comes in."

In case his 'crush the internal dissidents' call wasn't clear enough, Robinson helpfully took the Democratic out of the Unionist Party: "There can never be a 'here's what's possible, what do you think?' approach. You are the leader." Robinson also advised that "the wise leader will already have sold the deal to a range of key colleagues in and beyond the negotiation team".

It was awkward for Robinson to sugar a coded message to Foster in a way which acknowledged that her difficulties are in some ways greater than his were as leader. Robinson could hardly discuss the RHI inquiry, nor acknowledge that some transfer of power and authority has inevitably gone to the DUP's all-important 10 Westminster MPs. Driving the train doesn't get easier with lots of hands on the steering. And even making the DUP leadership the equivalent of Papal Infallibility cannot always shift the refuseniks. One of Robinson's opening acts as First Minister was to ditch the Maze museum and sports stadium idea due to internal opposition.

Naturally, there was no direct criticism of the DUP leader, seated on the front row and effectively installed via an example of Robinson's own uncompromising leadership approach. His term of office concluded with his effective declaration of Arlene as his replacement - announced as the only contestant. Rival candidates were 'discouraged'. Stephen Nolan's radio programme opened with the theme from 'The Godfather' on the morning following Robinson's announcement.

Whilst his QUB appointment may have been controversial, Robinson was entitled to lecture on leadership.

He marginalised internal doubters within his party and helped produce the only period of coherent devolved government. Whilst the Chuckle Brothers era of Paisley-McGuinness is oft-celebrated, it is overstated and perhaps over-rated. Robinson was the details man who also became more of a pragmatist - one good at crisis management.

It was under the Robinson-McGuinness axis that the serious business was concluded. This included the most significant achievement of the Executive - the devolution of policing and justice.

Yet despite this success, Robinson and the DUP remained ambiguous - at best - about aspects of the Belfast Agreement. And the former leader's QUB lecture took aim at some of its core features. As Robinson put it, "some of the existing arrangements almost invite disruption".

Voluntary not mandatory coalition, fixed-term assemblies and the capacity to remove obstructive parties were all suggestions - all of which carry their own problems. Notwithstanding the DUP's role as the major players of the Petition of Concern card, Robinson suggested mutual vetoes and communal designations "are not the only ways of taking decisions in a divided society".

Most controversially of all, Robinson called for a 'generational' border poll whilst appearing to eschew the idea of 50% plus one being a satisfactory majority. Yet the principle of internal northern consent was at the heart of the 1998 deal - the greatest of all the concessions by republicans who had hitherto dismissed 'Six County' consent as a 'Unionist veto'. Moving the goalposts on consent would be destabilising.

Where Robinson was on safer ground was in his confidence that unionists would win such a border poll. Our 2017 Westminster election study suggested 50% would vote for Northern Ireland to remain in the UK, against 27% backing a united Ireland.

The new member of the Queen's professoriat also made a valid point in claiming that a 50% plus one majority would produce chaos in terms of working out the immediate programme for enacting unity.

Implicit in Robinson's comments was the need for unionists and nationalists to think about what such unity would look like. Unity is off-limits for unionist discussions and republicans have given insufficient consideration to the institutional apparatus of a united Ireland since the old federal ideas of Sinn Fein were discarded way back in the early 1980s.

So a thoughtful opening lecture. The seminars might be good too. How will we know whether Robinson's advice has been heeded?

Maybe in a decade's time, if a QUB audience is listening to Professor Foster's inaugural lecture on devolved government and leadership, the significance of Professor Robinson's contribution might be apparent. We'll see.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author of The Democratic Unionist Party: From Protest to Power (Oxford University Press)

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