Belfast Telegraph

Peter Robinson: How I warned Arlene they'd come for her - and why Mike got it wrong

Former First Ministers Arlene Foster and Peter Robinson
Former First Ministers Arlene Foster and Peter Robinson

By Peter Robinson

Over the past few weeks many of you have sent me messages asking for my views on recent events.

When I retired as First Minister and party leader I determined not to be enticed into providing a running commentary on local political events. For the last year I have maintained that position, though at times the temptation has been hard to resist.

Events, however, have created a set of circumstances where my concern for the very existence of the institutions is greater than my desire for a quiet retirement.

The level of peace and stability that has characterised recent years was hard-won and involved years of difficult work and endless negotiations. There is still so much more to achieve and some distance to travel on our journey towards fully functioning democratic structures and genuine reconciliation, but we should not lose sight of that goal.

The consequences of regression are many and may well be catastrophic. It must, therefore, be the duty of each of our elected representatives to embrace that essential value also enshrined in the Hippocratic Oath - primum non nocere (first, do no harm).

When I left office, the Fresh Start Agreement was in place and the major parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, were both committed to its implementation. The DUP maintained all its seats in the May election with Sinn Fein only dropping one. With a fair wind, five years were available to implement an agreed Programme for Government and Northern Ireland should have been benefiting from a settled political environment with politicians working to deliver.

I fear Mike Nesbitt has lost his bearings. Setting the unionist electorate an example of voting for a nationalist before fellow unionists is an unconscionable error. Unionism is not a sectarian label, it is a proud legacy and a respected cause. It is the kernel of our political thought and the means of obtaining the best future for our people.

To encourage the reduction of unionist Assembly Members and seek to increase the number of United Ireland-seeking SDLP MLAs would cause the founders of his party to turn in their graves. It is the antithesis of traditional unionist thinking and a perversion of unionist values. Some have applauded his advice as hopeful "new thinking", but this does not invest it with any merit. It is corrosive, headline-grabbing folly.

Our political structures were constructed because two separate and distinct political identities exist here. The structures are framed to manage that irreversible truth. This does not mean that the two traditions cannot co-exist or work together in partnership - quite the opposite, they must - but it does not airbrush from reality the core priority of ensuring the return of the maximum number of unionist representatives.

This is polling day and your vote is a precious commodity. The danger still remains that stay-at-home unionists could present republicans with a victory. I urge unionist voters to forsake the comfort of their firesides to register their vote and send a message that more progress is needed and a fully operational Stormont with strong unionists at the helm is the mechanism to see it achieved.

I admit I view life from a unionist prospective. But I still cannot fathom how an election at this time and, given the higher and wider considerations, was justifiable. There is no question that mistakes were made with the renewable heat scheme - that much everyone agrees. But throughout the world mistakes are made by politicians and government officials without it amounting to a crisis with the potential of bringing down the political institutions.

Of course, Opposition parties will want to make hay - that's their legitimate function - though in these circumstances, their similar failure as Members of the Assembly with a statutory responsibility to scrutinise departmental legislation and actions also leaves them exposed.

However, the proper role of the Executive was to put in place corrective cost-control measures and initiate a thorough inquiry to ensure that lessons are learned and failings are identified, documented and published. If culpability and claims of wrongdoing at any level are sustained, then the inquiry judge should recommend sanctions as appropriate. These steps have been taken and that should have been the beginning and end of the action plan to deal with the crisis until the inquiry reports.

There was never a need for an election, nor were the people who live here ever going to derive any benefit from it. The argument that 'it's time for the people to have their say on these matters' is bogus. The time for people to have their say would have been after the public inquiry had published its report and all the facts were known and independently evaluated without spin, hype or sensationalism.

Instead, we have had an increasingly fractious contest that has further divided and limited the ability to rebuild the political institutions.

It is not for me to reach any conclusions about why Sinn Fein chose instead to force an election and declare that it would not return to the status quo, but I cannot help feeling, no matter what now will be said, that had Martin McGuinness been in good health a breakdown would have been avoided. As it is, the more belligerent elements in Sinn Fein have seized their opportunity and are seeking to advance their agenda regardless of imperilling the political structures.

When Arlene was installed as First Minister and leader of Northern Ireland's largest party I told her she would have a short honeymoon and then they would come for her. The holder of the top post on entering office becomes the target of every envious politician and party. But even by that standard she has been harshly treated in recent weeks.

You can be sure that when the public inquiry is completed and suggestions of wrongdoing are found to be groundless, the media will not fill their programmes and columns with apologies, and the self-serving politicians in Sinn Fein, the SDLP, UUP and Alliance who have directed thinly disguised accusations of corruption will fall silent. Such is the injustice of modern day politics.

Some have attacked the DUP for stressing the possibility of Sinn Fein taking the lead political position in Northern Ireland and pointing to the increasing role of Gerry Adams as the puppet-master. For many unionists, the thought of Sinn Fein tricolour-waving victory cavalcades touring the country and Adams crossing the globe purporting to speak for Northern Ireland will be enough to bring them out to the polls and vote for the DUP, which alone can keep the top position for unionism.

For me, the prime concern is that as the largest party Sinn Fein would have a significantly enhanced influence with Government in future negotiations.

Sinn Fein is proposing that major negotiations should take place after the election. There are two aspects to this that need to be understood.

Firstly, if there is going to be a major negotiation it will not be around Sinn Fein's wishlist alone. Unionists will also arrive with their own list of demands to deal with the weaknesses of the present structures; chief among them the mandatory nature of the coalition, the jointery of the Executive Office, community designations and a very different emphasis on legacy matters.

Secondly, a negotiation of the scale Sinn Fein is seeking to initiate will not be completed in the time legally available. Almost inevitably, the Assembly will be suspended and Northern Ireland will be back to direct rule (or as Gerry Adams would describe it, Tory rule). I'm not convinced the electorate will want to endorse years of that!

Sinn Fein, by calling the election and setting out its agenda, has made this election into one of constitutional importance and provided an imperative for a high unionist turnout. The recent opinion poll showing an equivalence in DUP and Sinn Fein support and the very real possibility of Sinn Fein taking the top spot will inevitably lead to voters rallying around the two major parties.

The result may take account of the ebb and flow of politics but, I suspect, it will still produce two large parties representative of the two main sections of this community. For every party leader in election mode, the temptation to do what gets the largest vote, irrespective of the long-term consequences, appears attractive. Sadly, it was not resisted. As things stand the road ahead leads inexorably to stalemate.

The election has pushed parties further apart and if over the next few weeks parties retain a list of red line demands inflated by electoral enthusiasm it will be impossible to reach agreement in either the short or medium term.

The structures, however imperfect, are all that stand between Northern Ireland and political isolation and impotence. While the election is unstoppable, the headlong rush into destruction is not.

Parties need to take care that the positions they are adopting do not close off sensible options. They should step back, take a breath and ensure there is sufficient space for an agreement to be reached in the calmer times that follow the hustings.

Belfast Telegraph


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