Alban Maginness: Peter Robinson deserves all our thanks for doing his bit to smash unionist taboos over Irish unity
The former DUP leader brings a much-needed openness to our sterile political debate, writes Alban Maginness
By his recent public statements, Peter Robinson has broken the mould of unionist political debate. Whereas before his ground-breaking and timely comments at both Queen's University - where he has been appointed as an honorary professor - and at the MacGill Summer School at Glenties in Donegal, there was an unspoken and unbreakable consensus within unionism which was in denial about the real prospect of a united Ireland and the question of a border poll in the not-too-distant future.
That absurd position is now dead. The taboo against openly and candidly discussing the serious prospect of a united Ireland arising out of a border poll has now been discarded.
Peter Robinson - retired or not - is a commanding figure within unionism.
Although he no longer takes an active role in political life, his rare public interventions have been carefully crafted and have captured public attention. His presence in the political background is evident.
Historians will have much to discuss about his role over the past 40 years in our politics. In any critical analysis, there will be a negative as well as a positive assessment. But there is little doubt that the DUP would not be the force that it is today without Robinson's organisational genius and his sense of strategic direction for unionism and the DUP.
His transformation from a radical loyalist protester and chief lieutenant of Ian Paisley in the Seventies, on the extreme fringe of unionist politics, into the now-elder statesman of mainstream unionism is a remarkable achievement and the meat for many a thesis by future history students.
Remarkably, he successfully moved from being a radical fringe loyalist into a pragmatic and skilful unionist leader, whose greatest achievement was to restore the Assembly and Executive in 2007 by entering into a difficult and at times fractious coalition with Sinn Fein and, in particular, with the arch-enemy, Martin McGuinness.
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In doing so, he developed an effective working relationship with McGuinness, which people may now look back upon with some degree of nostalgia and maybe envy.
Like McGuinness, he changed from being a radical street agitator into a pragmatic politician. While Ian Paisley's overall leadership was crucial to the restoration of the Assembly, it is hard to see how this could have been done without Robinson's political skill, imaginative thinking and support.
Much has been said about Robinson's Glenties comments on a united Ireland and a border poll. However, these comments were, in fact, extemporary comments - not the major focus of his carefully-constructed address.
In his lengthy speech, he concentrated on the disruptive and divisive fall-out of Brexit and the very real impact of Brexit destabilising the hitherto settled political relationship between the UK and the Irish Republic.
To mitigate such toxic consequences, he strongly supported the restoration of the Assembly and Executive and the north-south and east-west institutions.
In short, the Assembly and its ancillary institutions provide the basic context for maintaining and developing the crucial political relations between London and Dublin and Belfast and Dublin in the post-Brexit era.
Therefore, the Assembly should be restored with immediate effect and, in parallel with restoration, strictly time-tabled negotiations should take place to resolve outstanding issues. If that did not work within the set deadlines, that would trigger the removal of the Assembly. He frankly stated: "What is needed is an injection of urgency to get the process moving."
Robinson radically diverges from the conventional wisdom, which asserts that only after Brexit has been dealt with would the Assembly be restored. He sees the restoration of the Assembly as playing a positive part of the Brexit process. In his view, matters are too serious here to wait until Brexit in March 2019, or indeed even later.
Despite the brickbats thrown at him by unionist critics, including those within his own party, like Sammy Wilson, he has reiterated his position robustly. He rejects unionist arguments that say that a vote on a united Ireland should not even be discussed.
He accuses those unionist critics of talking claptrap. He has highlighted the idiocy of his critics and mocked their absurdity, when he said: "Not only are they advising us not to talk about a border poll, but they don't want us to even talk about the subject matter at the heart of such a poll."
Robinson has done our politics an enormous good by speaking out with authority on the consequences of Brexit, the restoration of the Assembly and addressing the possibility of a united Ireland.
He has brought some freshness and openness to a hitherto sour and sterile political discourse that has blighted and stifled political initiative here for far too long.
Politicians should reflect carefully on what he has actually said and take heed of his wise counsel.