Belfast Telegraph

This adept deal-maker knows Union can only be secured by engagement with Catholics

By Malachi O'Doherty

Peter Robinson knows how to make a deal. We can admire him for that, or be cynical about it, but his form attests to it.

When unionism was boycotting all political action in protest against the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, it was Robinson and a few around him who went to Duisberg in Germany for secret talks to try and get things moving again.

Those talks were attended by Fr Alec Reid, as the eyes and ears of Gerry Adams. I doubt Robinson thought he was there to say Grace.

At St Andrews, together with Sinn Fein, the Good Friday Agreement was dealt with in such a way as to favour parties over communities and drive votes towards the bigger party in each community and away from the smaller ones, cutting the legs out from under the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists.

And while he is now taking flak for trying to get unionists to anticipate a border poll, it is tempting to wonder how he might have dealt with the current deadlock at Stormont - or even if he would have backed himself into it.

He had threatened to bring down Stormont at least twice before: once over the 'On The Run' letters, one of which had scuppered the prosecution of a suspected IRA bomber, and then again after the murder of former IRA man Kevin McGuigan by a gang that the PSNI said included Provos.

But he made the deal that saved it, as he had done when Martin McGuinness threatened to pull out unless Justice was devolved.

Neither Robinson nor McGuinness was genuinely inclined towards political suicide. Both loved the Executive and thrived within it.

So, imagine that it is December 2016 and Robinson is still First Minister, not having had that dicky heart after all. He is in his office and Martin McGuinness drops by. "Did you see Spotlight last night? Are you listening to The Nolan Show?"

McGuinness would have said that the RHI scandal would have to be dealt with and Robinson would have accepted that.

"Look," says McGuinness. "You could lose your Environment Minister over this. At least, she has to step aside until an inquiry clears her."

McGuinness would be reminding him that Sinn Fein had lost rising star Daithi McKay, after his committee had heard Jamie Bryson deftly lob allegations at Robinson over Nama.

And he would be saying something like: "I have people muttering that Sinn Fein is looking like the patsy in this deal. So, tell Arlene to take a long holiday and we'll have the inquiry and she can come back when the time is right."

We don't know how Robinson would have managed that.

We can reasonably wonder if Arlene Foster herself doesn't dwell on the consequences of her refusal to stand down. And she couldn't bring herself to do it at the behest of Martin McGuinness, now immortalised as Oglach McGuinness. But if Robinson had still been in the high chair, he could have made the situation plain.

With Robinson still in office and Martin McGuinness in good health, we would still have an Executive.

We would have made some progress on health service reform and we could be having debates and votes right now on abortion law reform, same-sex marriage and an Irish Language Act, though nobody had thought back then to make that a do-or-die issue.

Neither, of course, would we have had the outstanding election result of March 2017, when nationalism caught up with pro-Agreement unionism in the Assembly, but since Sinn Fein has chosen not to capitalise on that gain, it hardly matters.

Robinson the deal-maker knows that there will be a price to be paid to get Sinn Fein back into Stormont. So, he suggests widening the negotiations and claiming a prize or two for unionism, as well.

He knows that the century of Protestant unionism is at an end and that the Union must be secured by a deal with the Catholic community.

But are unionists listening?

Belfast Telegraph

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