Belfast Telegraph

Can Peter Robinson come out of the Big Man Ian Paisley's shadow?

Peter Robinson side by side with his predecessor as leader of the DUP, the late Ian Paisley
Peter Robinson side by side with his predecessor as leader of the DUP, the late Ian Paisley

By Liam Clarke

Whatever is said about Ian Paisley's overall impact on our society it is undeniable that he did a good job for his party. He handed over the DUP to his successor Peter Robinson in very good order. Together they had brought it from nothing to the point where it was the largest political entity in Northern Ireland. It had moved from protest to the heart of government. It was courted by the establishment; it had the ears of Prime Ministers and Presidents.

What legacy will Peter Robinson hand on to his successor when he goes? Many predict that may happen within months rather than years. Party insiders predict that the DUP will then adopt a split leadership, like Sinn Fein, with the posts of party leader and First Minister held by two different people so that contrasting wings of the party can be accommodated.

When Mr Robinson took over, in what amounted to a coronation with no divisive contest, Dr Paisley had already done the heavy lifting by entering government with Sinn Fein. He had spent a year chuckling with Martin McGuinness to show everyone that this extraordinary partnership was in earnest and could work.

After the Leeds Castle talks in 2004 Dr Paisley had been unable to agree terms for devolution and was in pretty bad shape with a leaking heart valve. If he had died at that time, as he feared, it would have been very difficult for his successor to close a deal with republicans.

There would have been the accusation that this was something that the Big Man would not have done, or that it betrayed his legacy.

In an interview with Stephen Nolan, Dr Paisley told how difficult and risky the decision had been even for him. "I had to take a step, a step that I had a lot of heart-searching on, a step that caused me a lot of pain, a step that had to put me out of the class of a coward into the class of a man prepared to sell himself and his reputation for the sake of his country" he said. He lost friends by his decision, but actual defections from the DUP were minimal. The gamble came off for both the party, whose vote continued to rise, and for society as a whole.

Mr Robinson took over with a clear run at power. The fact that the succession was so sweet for him seems to have been one of the reasons for the resentment in the Paisley family. There seemed to be the feeling that Dr Paisley had a right to enjoy the fruits of his achievement for a little longer as First Minister.

The DUP is not in such a good position today. The vote is stagnant, the East Belfast Westminster seat is gone, relations with Sinn Fein are at an all-time low and Mr Robinson himself says that the devolution set-up is no longer fit for purpose.

He needs, like Dr Paisley before him, to take his courage in both hands and stake his reputation on achieving a few legacy issues.

The big ones are agreement on welfare reform, some reform of the institution of government, the devolution of corporation tax next month, and winning back East Belfast.

The first two of these are the most basic. To achieve them all he will need to do is rebuild trust levels with Sinn Fein, which have plummeted sharply since the Paisley era.

Taking the devolution settlement to the next stage and handing it on intact is Robinson's challenge. That is what history will judge him on.

Belfast Telegraph

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