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Peter Robinson: why the DUP’s MPs will be able to continue double-jobbing after elections

By Noel McAdam

Senior DUP figures are to be allowed to remain as both MPs and MLAs beyond the next national and Assembly elections, party leader Peter Robinson has confirmed.

But if they opt to double up at both Westminster and Stormont they will have to forego their Assembly salaries, the First Minister has ruled.

Denying any climbdown on his pledge to end double-jobbing, Mr Robinson said: “...if we were to pull all the expertise out of the Assembly in one go I think politics would suffer as a result.

“We therefore decided and indicated there would be two tranches effectively. We did not put any figures on the numbers that would go at each time.

But MPs who are MLAs only take a third of the Assembly salary — at present figures that’s £64,766 as an MP with an Assembly add-on of £14,367.

And dual mandate politicians do get dual allowances from Stormont and Westminster for staffing and running constituency offices, involving annual maximums of £72,660 at Stormont and £111,844 in London.

In an extensive interview with the Belfast Telegraph today, Mr Robinson also disclosed that the party is undertaking a massive internal revamp following its poor performance in the European election.

A raft of proposals agreed by party officers is due to go before the next meeting of the party executive.

After almost 18 months in office as both First Minister and DUP leader, Mr Robinson refused to rate his own performance, but said unionists did not expect him to be “buddy buddy” with Martin McGuinness.

While the Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister argues he represents the entire community, Mr Robinson said: “I am here to promote a unionist agenda.” And he also revealed private party polling indicates the DUP is “back on track”.

The interview came in the week the wraps came off the £1bn package on policing and justice negotiated with Prime Minister Gordon Brown, with the DUP leader continuing to insist that a date for the transfer of the new powers to Stormont is not a factor he takes into account.

Q & A

Until now you have refused to give any deadline for the transfer of policing and justice powers, as a negotiating tactic, but now that the financial package is out can you give a best guess when you think devolution of policing and justice will actually happen?

We are led only by when the terms are met as opposed to what the calender or clock might do. The length of time it takes is not a factor I am taking into account. What I am taking into account is whether we have got the right arrangements and whether the public confidence is there in those powers being devolved. That will depend largely on whether the arrangements are there to have the funding to do the job, structures are sufficiently robust, and whether the public have confidence in the people who will be doing the job.

We strongly believe there are advantages in having policing and justice devolved, but there is no advantage unless it is done on a basis where the police are properly funded, where structures are sufficiently robust, and where there is confidence in the community that it will be operated as good or better than it is at present.

But is there not a danger that your party, being interpreted as delaying all the time, is being seen to be dragged over a line by Sinn Fein that you would prefer not to cross?

I am reluctant to cross over any line until I know I am going to be putting my feet on firm ground. People can interpret this whatever way they wish, but if I had taken the headlong rush that some would have had me take, including some in the Press, we would have done a deal some hundreds of millions of pounds lighter than we have. You seem to have a fixation on time, but I don’t. It’s a key negotiation tactic for people who do not want to make concessions to impose timescales.

It is not just a media concern. The government has said it is concerned this could unravel if it goes into the New Year in the run-up to an election.

How do the elections change the issues that have to be resolved? The elections don’t change the deal, it is either right or it is not, it’s as simple as that. There are people who because they want things to happen quickly will pull any old stick out of the hedge to beat us with. We had this spurious argument that you couldn’t get investment from the United States if you didn’t get policing and justice resolved.

Who in the US would come to NI with investment? A week after it is said, what happens, the New York Stock exchange decides to have a major investment in Northern Ireland without policing and justice being resolved. There will be people who will attempt to do anything they can to push you over a line.

Eighteen months or so after becoming First Minister and DUP leader, how do you rate your performance as both?

I don’t spend any time rating my own performance. What I have spent time on doing is reflecting how the process has operated. We have made more agreements than any of our predecessors. If you look you are probably taking at most about 2% of the issues that we face where there has been a problem. If you look at the reporting by both media and the Press, 99% of the coverage of this Assembly has been on the issues that have been problematical, instead of the 2%.

In terms of the First Minister’s post, it appears the relationship between yourself and the Deputy First Minister has deteriorated in recent times. Have you spoken to him privately about this?

I didn’t really see any value. I have to say I don’t think it is helpful for anyone who is unhappy to be making public comments. I have avoided making any personal attacks on him and will continue to do so. I believe where there are difficulties, we are sitting at a table where we should attempt to resolve those difficulties.

I have said publicly I don’t believe anybody in the unionist community or certainly in this party put me in this position so that I would be Martin McGuinness’ buddy and best friend. Their view is that we go there to stop a republican agenda. I am here to promote a unionist agenda and I will do business on the basis that I have a particular electorate that has elected me to do a certain job.There will be times when we have differences, but I think perhaps the Press spend a little too much time looking at the personalities in politics rather than the issues. I think if we perhaps concentrated more on the issues, we might be able to resolve them.

But there was great store put in the way you came together at the time of the Massereene soldiers and PC Stephen Carroll being killed so when people start to see that fragment they do have concerns.

We also came together in agreement after the most recent attack by dissidents and we are coming together in agreement on policing and justice. People will make their own judgements — not on the basis of us throwing our arms around each other, but whether we are getting the job done.

People seem to forget what went before; is it not better that we have disagreements politically than these things being played out in the streets in towns and villages as they have been in the past in a violent way. People may not like disagreement, but this is politics. Yet we have more agreement between the parties in NI than any other political institution in the British Isles.

In terms of party leadership, are you able to explain the reasons behind your relatively poor performance in the European elections and do you feel the party has been able to reconnect with its base?

The one thing I have noticed in the past when parties face the kind of challenge that we face that somehow they try and hide themselves from the difficulties that are there. Surprisingly, without the glare of publicity and without the leaks that normally attend political issues, there has been a major operation in the party, which I don’t believe any other political party anywhere has undertaken.

We brought our Assembly members together, took them away, spent a lot of time looking at issues, set up a group of Assembly members, below leadership level, asking them to analyse and make recommendations. I wrote to every member of the party and asked them to give their views on how we should move forward, what changes were needed and brought in an outside consultant with particular expertise, given complete freedom to speak to whoever in the party they wanted to. And now we have a raft of issues which will mean a seismic change in the way the party operates and which impacts on every level in the party.

How would you characterise that change?

I would almost say revolutionary, but we have taken advice from critical friends about how we operate. We have looked at changes that are required right from officer corp to every element of our party. We have looked at the quality of communications, or lack of it, internally, and spent a lot of time on the outward facing communications, our relationship with the electorate.

We have looked at how we encourage greater community involvement in politics in Northern Ireland and we are very keen to have more ‘on ramps’ into party membership from our society than exist at the present time. So we are talking about fundamental change in the way we do business. And having agreed the size and nature of the change, we have to decide how we implement it. It will be a very different DUP operation.

How will we notice the difference?

I have a duty and responsibility to go to the party Executive with the officers’ recommendations and I don’t think members of the Executive would like to read in the pages of the Belfast Telegraph what the changes are before they are told directly. We have another officers meeting to finalise the raft of changes, but we are fundamentally changing the way we operate as a political party.

I have to say I am encouraged by the polling carried out over the last month where it’s clear we are back on track, but there can be no complacency. I have been reluctant to share the polling stuff with colleagues because I don’t want them to take their eye off the ball to make those changes.

Is this your own private polling?

Yes, so from our point of view we are very keen that we do transform our organisation, particularly in the one area of our relationship with the electorate, and I take the blame, probably more than anybody else. We were involved in this building, absorbed in the business of government. And I believe in doing that, we didn’t cut out sufficient time to make sure we were communicating our message clearly.

You have flagged up the phasing out of double-jobbing, but are we going to have to wait until the general election next year, the 2011 Assembly election, or 2015 before it is ‘one man, one job’ in your party ?

We arrived at double jobbing because there was a recognition by the party that we hadn’t had meaningful devolution in the province for many decades and we needed to build up the expertise within our own party organisation. We had the ability of having many experienced people at Westminster and it was the view of the party, endorsed by the electorate, which is an important aspect of it, that it was advantageous to have people with experience of working within political institutions at a high level in the Assembly. On that basis our MPs stood for the Assembly and the voters put them there. It wasn’t as if we crafted some backdoor method of getting them there.

So we want to get to a position where we have one man, one job, as you describe it. But we have to do that in a careful way because if we were to pull all the expertise out of the Assembly in one go, I think politics would suffer as a result. We therefore decided and indicated there would be two tranches effectively. We did not put any figures on the numbers that would go at each time, but it was clear that once the next election is out of the way, there would be no-one standing for both Westminster and the Assembly.

That is still our position and I suppose if I am going to be completely open and honest as a political party, we have to take into consideration the developments of the Assembly and our ability to remove people from here to go to Westminster. But we also had to consider the development of the party at a constituency level and the extent to which the party organisation is able to provide us with the additional personalities to stand, and how our electorate would be affected.

It will be phased out as I had previously indicated. It will be phased out in the two tranches, but that anybody who remains after the Westminster election in both the Assembly and Westminster will not take their Assembly salary, so there will be no pecuniary advantage to the individual of being in the two institutions. They will doing it for the sake of devolution or their party organisation.

There are people I know who want to do one job, but their constituency associations are saying to them we need you for an additional term so we’re resolving those issues within the party and attempting to reduce those figures as quickly as we can. But they will be down to zero by the following Westminster election.

Ten things you didn’t know about First Minister Robinson

1 Almost every artist features in his extensive country and western music collection.

2 Like his predecessor as First Minister, Lord Trimble, he also likes classical music.

3 He has no time these days to feed the Koi Carp fish he breeds by hand.

4 Despite this neglect, his pond of Japanese pets still grows in size and number.

5 He has never watched the DVD boxed set of The Sopranos given as a gift by HBO.

6 He supports Chelsea (with a residual pull towards Spurs).

7 The First Minister never went to university.

8 His favourite TV |programmes are The West Wing and 24, with Kiefer Sutherland playing action man Jack Bauer.

9 Mr Robinson has taken up golf.

10 Although he is now party leader at Westminster and First Minister at Stormont, he spent most of his political years in local government.

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