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Why it's too soon to write Robinson off

Watching events in Stormont this year has been like watching my wife's box set of The Thick of It. In the show, spin doctors and politicians thrash around in an effort to put the best possible face on events and whip the media into line, but at the end of each episode, political reality reasserts itself.

The balance of forces isn't affected fundamentally by all the plotting and the media usually ends up getting its story. Often the spin doctors make things worse, increasing everyone's blood pressure as they battle against the inevitable. We are now in the thick of a period of frenzied political and press activity, but it is already clear that the main effect has been to deal Sinn Fein a stronger hand than before.

The party is now in a position where, if the DUP doesn't deliver on the devolution of policing and justice, they can walk away from the institutions and the major political casualty will be the DUP.

This is the DUP's nightmare scenario, a cul de sac into which they have staggered through their collective inability to face the fact that coalition government requires a constant process of compromise. Standing firm on every issue just doesn't cut it. We are about to learn whether the DUP can govern effectively, or is capable only of the blocking tactics which became second nature in the years when 'Ulster Says No' was its watchword.

Meeting Sinn Fein's demands is the least damaging option for Peter Robinson's party at this point. If they act logically, they will make the most of whatever fig leaves are offered on parading and the method of selecting the next First Minister.

That's a big 'if' and could even involve a split or defections, but the alternative is worse. If the DUP hang tough on devolution, following the course charted by Gregory Campbell and Lord Morrow, then they must prepare for Sinn Fein to walk away.

Gerry Adams and John O'Dowd are already on the record that Sinn Fein won't give the DUP the six weeks in which Arlene Foster acts up as First Minister to ponder the issue.

The fall of Assembly wouldn't suit Sinn Fein either; they are only a bit-part player in the Dail and they don't take their seats at Westminster, so they need a deal to keep their ministries in Stormont.

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that they do allow the DUP the full six weeks to reach a deal. At that point, the DUP must either continue with Peter Robinson as First Minister or get rid of him. It will then be the end of February.

If Robinson resigns from office, Martin McGuinness is also removed from his post and the two parties must propose replacements. If Sinn Fein doesn't co-operate, then the Assembly will fall. Republicans used this lever when Robinson replaced Paisley, but eventually pulled back following indications that he wanted to complete the devolution of policing and justice.

The nuclear option may look more attractive now than it did back in 2008. The immediate effect would be a week of negotiations in which the two parties, the two governments and all the king's horses and all the king's men would try to put Stormont together again.

If that didn't work, then the Secretary of State would be required to announce an election within six weeks and the Government's legal advice is that he couldn't delay that decision very long. That would mean an Assembly election close to the end of April. Pundits predict a Westminster contest in May.

In this scenario, the DUP would face two elections within weeks of each other - or perhaps on the same day. They would still be mired in scandal; they would have dumped their leader, endured a leadership contest and failed to achieve anything much at Stormont.

They could spin it that they had stood firm, but that wouldn't be very convincing to the new DUP voters who flocked in from the UUP counting on the party to provide stable, effective government. Jim Allister would also gain; it could be the end of the DUP's brief period in the sun as the leader of unionism.

Sinn Fein would have a better tale to tell. They could say that they had tried for years, but the DUP just wouldn't offer equality in government so, in the interests of their constituents, they were now seeking a better deal from the two governments. The republican dissidents would seek to justify their campaign by arguing that Northern Ireland is a failed state which has proved ungovernable.

There is no point trying to look further forward, but it is clear that, whatever the disadvantages, the DUP's best option as things stand is to hang on to Robinson as party leader until the next Westminster election and to do whatever is required to keep Stormont alive for another year. They might lose Westminster seats, but they would at least have bought time to retrieve some of their reputation by governing effectively at Stormont.

That is why I think that, in the absence of any further revelations or any findings against him in the various inquiries now under way, Robinson will probably survive as leader in the medium term. He is weakened and vulnerable so, if there is any more mud, or any of the old mud sticks, it will finish him off. But as things stand his party still needs him.

The DUP is the biggest party in Northern Ireland and they have no one to blame but themselves for this situation. They will need to learn its lessons if they hope to retrieve anything from the experience. The problem is that their period in government has been marked by indecision and deadlock as they have attempted to remain united by regularly humiliating Sinn Fein.

The slowest member of the DUP team, usually Gregory Campbell, has been allowed to control the brakes and the party has spent too much time glancing over its shoulder at Jim Allister when its eyes should have been fixed on the road ahead. That is why, when the Iris Robinson scandal jumped out in front of them, they ended up in the ditch.