| 15.8°C Belfast

Robinson acutely aware of Foster’s shortcomings as leader, but he is on her side


Arlene Foster and Peter Robinson at the DUP annual conference in 2015

Arlene Foster and Peter Robinson at the DUP annual conference in 2015

Arlene Foster and Peter Robinson at the DUP annual conference in 2015

The return of Robbo dominated political debate yesterday after his no holds barred article in the Belfast Telegraph denouncing unionist lethargy on a border poll.

All sorts of speculation surfaced about what he was up to.

The idea gained traction that he was out to undermine Arlene Foster and cause chaos in DUP ranks. Rumours even circulated that a political comeback was on the cards.

Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback programme, former Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey said: "Peter is now setting himself up as this Svengali-like figure sitting cross-legged on a cushion with incense burning around him."

On one level, a desire to return to elected politics by Mr Robinson would be understandable. He spent almost a quarter-of-a-century as Ian Paisley's bridesmaid.

His own time in the sun was brief by comparison. Robinson enjoyed just seven years as DUP leader and First Minister. It seemed he never fulfilled his potential.

But he moved swiftly yesterday to dismiss the suggestion that he could soon be bouncing back into politics. "You must be joking. Not the remotest notion of doing so," he texted Talkback.

Daily Headlines & Evening Telegraph Newsletter

Receive today's headlines directly to your inbox every morning and evening, with our free daily newsletter.

This field is required

The notion that Robinson is taking a swipe at Foster and subverting her leadership is also flawed.

He told the DUP he was writing the Belfast Telegraph article. He forwarded a draft to the party and Foster didn't request any changes. She was "100% happy" with the piece that was published yesterday, a DUP spokesman said.

This newspaper also understands that East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson was very much speaking for himself, and not for the party, in his robust criticism of Robinson yesterday.

There is no great mystery in what the former DUP leader was trying to do in his article.

Last week in Co Donegal he warned that unionists must begin preparing for a border poll. Criticism followed from Wilson and the Ulster Unionists.

Yesterday's article was Robinson biting back.

And the former DUP leader was certainly in vintage form with many caustic, terse turns of phrase. "Claptrap", "crass" and "chloroformed" were all employed against those who had castigated him.

It's just plain wrong to imagine Robinson was seeking to sabotage Foster. She was the only person he singled out for praise in his 1,800-word piece.

She had made a "forceful and persuasive" case for the Union in her speech to the Policy Exchange conference in London in May, he said. He accused other unionist politicians of failing to do the same or, at best, adopting a "scattergun approach".

Robinson is, of course, acutely aware of Foster's shortcomings as leader and the mistakes she has made in the past two years.

But he is on her side. He would not want to say anything to harm or humiliate her.

Let's remember, her ascendancy within the DUP couldn't have happened without him. Criticising her is effectively criticising the choice he made on his successor.

It's the UUP - and particularly his old East Belfast electoral opponent Sir Reg - who are the target of Robinson's venom. He believes the party was asleep at the wheel over the border poll provision in the Good Friday Agreement.

The UUP retorts, with some justification, that the former DUP leader failed to negotiate the provision out at the St Andrews talks.

Regardless of who is to blame, it is impossible to argue with the logic of Robinson's case that unionists are failing to plan for a border poll at their peril.

A Jeremy Corbyn Government would hold a referendum in a heartbeat if Sinn Fein so wished.

It's on winning wider support for the pro-Union case, which Robinson and Foster both say is necessary, that they become undone. They talk the talk but don't take any substantial steps to deliver. The DUP, and effectively the Union, has never been as toxic to the general Catholic community in Northern Ireland as it has under Foster's leadership.

And let's not rewrite history and pretend Robinson presided over a golden age of reconciliation either.

In 2011 he stated that he wanted to turn the DUP into a cross-community party.

He said: "My challenge, as the leader of unionism, is to attract some of the 52% of Catholics who say they are content to remain within the UK to vote DUP, or better still, to identify more closely with the party."

How did that go?

As the DUP's main strategist for over three decades, Robinson is burying his head in the sand if he doesn't acknowledge his role in alienating Catholics from unionism.

In any future border poll, the DUP will be the driving force on the pro-Union side.

In its current form, it is also the biggest asset to campaigners for Irish unity.

Recognising that is the real wake-up call required.

Top Videos