Belfast Telegraph

First Minister Peter Robinson putting his affairs in order before his planned exit

By Liam Clarke

Two political rumours have kept recurring over the last couple of years. The first is that Peter Robinson is about to be axed as party leader. The second is that Theresa Villiers, the Secretary of State, hasn't her eye on the ball.

Commentators produce these old chestnuts when both politicians are out of the country, especially in late summer. It happened this year after ructions broke out in the DUP over health and budgets, instead of parading like last year.

Rumours grew that it wasn't just a case of "when the cats away, the mice will play"; instead, it was part of a leadership heave.

In fact, both Ms Villiers and Mr Robinson had a strategy. I got the first interview with her last month shortly after she returned here on August 13.

Here is an excerpt: "The two big obstacles to progress at the moment are the implementation of welfare reform and trying to restart the cross-party talks on the legacy issues of flags, parading and the past.

"Those are the two issues which I will be focusing on strongly."

She added: "My priority is to get the unionists back to the table on cross-party talks."

She intends pushing ahead with proposals, first mooted in the Belfast Telegraph, for a special process to look at parading in north Belfast to unlock unionist opposition.

She said Senator Gary Hart, who she had met a few days earlier, was here to see what the Americans could do to help Northern Ireland.

That all sounds fairly purposeful. In fact, it sounds like a plan. And no sooner was Mr Robinson back than he called his two ministers, Simon Hamilton in Finance and Edwin Poots in Health, into his office and emerged with a compromise on health funding which ended hostilities – for the time being at least.

His next significant move was writing an article in this newspaper, setting out a strategy for all-party talks on welfare reform and reforming Stormont.

In conversation, he conceded that other parties could raise flags, parading and the past. His response to widening the talks, he hinted, would largely depend on what Ms Villiers did about the north Belfast parading issue.

That would determine the "graduated response" of unionists, which led them to walk out of talks on the legacy issues of flags, parading and the past in the summer.

Of course, this could all come unstuck; talks fail more often than they succeed. But the signs are that we are in for another push to move these issues to the next stage.

It also looks likely that Peter Robinson will move on from the DUP leadership in months, rather than years.

Getting movement on systems of government and welfare reform could well be a legacy issue for him. Restoring order and stability would allow him to hand things over to his successor next spring.

The party needs him around to close the deal, just as they needed Ian Paisley to remain until he had reached a deal on entering government with Sinn Fein.

There are two other legacy issues that he can hope for. One would be getting a commitment from David Cameron to devolve corporation tax. There is a good chance of that happening next month.

The second would be seeing the DUP win back his former East Belfast Westminster seat from Alliance.

All three would be a dream exit; two would be pretty good. You get the feeling that Mr Robinson is putting his affairs in order.

He isn't finished yet, but he won't cling indefinitely to office.

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