Peter Robinson’s fearsome political abilities were recognised by the head of the civil service in 1985 during an American conference at which unionists were judged to have demolished their nationalist opponents’ arguments.
The Airlie House Conference, convened by Professor Padraig O’Malley in Virginia, brought together unionists, nationalists and representatives of the British and Irish governments.
Mr Robinson, then a 36-year-old DUP MP and deputy leader, was joined in America by party colleagues Jim Allister and Sammy Wilson.
Three reports of the event from three separate civil servants lamented the performance of the SDLP leader.
A January 1985 memo from Sir Ken Bloomfield provided a vivid personal analysis of proceedings. He and NIO official John Lyon had attended the event with NIO junior minister Chris Patten.
Noting the absence of Ian Paisley from the high-powered DUP delegation, he said that “in his absence, one inevitably has reservations as to whether pronouncements by the DUP are, or are not, ex cathedra. However, three days’ exposure to Peter Robinson amply demonstrated what a forceful, articulate and crafty politician he is, and it is not therefore likely that in anything he said he was departing markedly from the party line — a developing party line, as far as one could see.”
Sir Ken said that the SDLP frequently triumphed, or “at worst shared the spoils of the argument” at such conferences, but on this occasion “the unionist parties — and in particular Messrs Robinson and [Bob] McCartney — won hands down”.
Sir Ken was scathing about the nationalist representatives, whose performance was so poor, he said, that even some of the instinctively nationalist American observers agreed they had been poor.
“John Hume is normally in his element in the United States, where he is widely regarded as occupying a position somewhere between Charles Stewart Parnell and Mother Theresa.
“On this occasion he gave a chilling impression of political bankruptcy, rather like a man who has lost a fortune by backing a particular number consistently at the roulette table and continues to stare at that number even though he no longer has a stake to play....he continued to rely on texts from the Forum Report as if they had been handed down on tablets of stone.”
Sir Ken said that his overall impression of the SDLP was “of a despondent party of tired men not knowing quite where to turn”. And he wryly noted of the event’s success: “Distance from Northern Ireland itself encourages at least a less strident tone, and late at night relaxation can be (and was) facilitated by liberal hospitality of the liquid kind.”
Another confidential memo, from Foreign Office diplomat David Barrie, gave a similar account of the conference, and noted that unionists had “very much been on their best behaviour”. He said that “the spokesmen of Irish nationalism had, on most points, been out-performed by the unionist representatives.
“Peter Robinson and his DUP colleagues were particularly impressive: they spoke fluently and had evidently prepared themselves with great thoroughness.”
He went on to say: “I was particularly surprised that Peter Robinson recognised the Irish government’s right to be ‘interested and concerned’ in the affairs of Northern Ireland. He even went so far as to say that if they were to be involved in altering their constitution they could reasonably demand a say in any negotiations regarding a settlement in Northern Ireland.”
The diplomat also commented acerbically on Michael Noonan, the then minister for justice, who is now the Republic’s finance minister. He described his performance as “wooden and unimpressive, relying heavily on quotations from the Forum Report”.
He added of Noonan: “He showed little ability to respond to the cut and thrust of the debate.”
A third official, John Lyon, said: “Mr Hume...must be judged to be the main casualty of the conference. It will have increased observers’ concern about the future of the SDLP.”