Peter Robinson has already hung on too long

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

I tailed off last week’s column with the observation that the unionist parties “will realise that they can’t all stand in next year’s general election without risking a loss of unionist seats. Whatever the parties may say now, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that they will need to talk about electoral pacts or arrangements.”

A couple of days later the TUV and UKIP issued a joint statement, noting that their combined tally of 100,000 votes “sends out a very clear message that a substantial proportion of the unionist population is disaffected from the other two minority parties in unionism, the DUP and UUP. With focus now shifting to the next Westminster elections and talk of a DUP/UUP pact, we point out that to be effective any such negotiations cannot afford to ignore 100,000 voters for whom TUV/UKIP are the parties of choice. Thus, if there are to be negotiations between unionists, it must contain all parties with significant votes and not just those in government with Sinn Fein.”

There will be talks between the unionist parties: and they will have to include the PUP, whose extra votes and support could have a particular impact on both the Westminster and Assembly elections in east Belfast. Interestingly, the DUP can no longer call the shots in intra-unionist talks because, as I pointed out during the election coverage, the DUP no longer speaks for a majority of unionists. And, as Sam McBride noted in Saturday’s News Letter, there is no unionist leader who can claim to be the undisputed voice of unionism – a claim that Peter Robinson was happy to make until a few weeks ago.

The inevitability of intra-unionist talks will focus their collective attention on Westminster and Assembly elections: but it will also force them to agree on a collective approach to what, for the want of a better term, we can call the ‘Haass issues’.

The DUP cannot deliver a deal if that deal does not have the nod of approval from Nesbitt/Allister/Hutchinson. It cannot risk a further slippage of support over the next 24 months and it cannot risk a free-for-all in election contests, either. It’s not so much that the DUP wants to talk: it can no longer avoid those talks.

But all of those parties need to be aware of something. The overall unionist vote increased at the Euro and council elections – but it increased because there was more choice for unionist voters. Deny them that choice and you run the risk of losing rather than attracting voters.

And, of course, there is no point in a purely cosmetic pact if the parties are going to continue to sling mud at each other and disagree on key aspects of policy, agenda and dealing with Sinn Fein.

The history of intra-unionist negotiations and pacts suggests that the relationship between the parties is usually much worse afterwards. Just look at the Unionist Forum, trumpeted by Robinson and Nesbitt in January 2013 as the most ‘significant development’ in unionism for 50 years.

The DUP has problems. Its vote has slipped. It is no longer the undisputed voice of unionism. And Peter Robinson has lost his touch: lost it to the extent that almost everything he touches turns to catastrophe. Early last year I suggested that he pack his bags and prepare for a dignified exit strategy, a strategy that would allow him to leave at a moment of his own choosing and with his head held high. I summed up my argument fairly brutally: “It isn’t going to get any better for you.”

But he hung on. He hung on because he convinced himself – or allowed the advisers on his payroll to convince him – that he needed to hang on. He ignored the “go now” advice that he trotted out to David Trimble in late 2003, when it became clear that Trimble had lost the support of key members of his inner circle. In a recent interview Trimble agreed that he “should have listened” to those people (I was one of them, by the way) who had urged him not to overstay his welcome.

A key aspect of Ian Paisley’s success was that he had Peter Robinson by his side.

It was Robinson who built the DUP. It was Robinson who controlled almost every aspect of propaganda, strategy, election campaigns and organisation. It was Robinson who did the long-term thinking. It was Robinson who ensured that the DUP didn’t walk away in 1998/99. The problem for Peter Robinson is that he doesn’t have a Peter Robinson by his side. When he stepped up to the office of First Minister he left behind a huge hole that no one has been able to fill.

2013 was a horrible year for him: the continuing fallout from the absurd attitude the DUP adopted to Alliance in late 2012; his inability to placate the flag protestors; the U-turn on the Maze; his increasingly bad relationship with McGuinness; and poll after poll confirming lack of public confidence in either the Assembly or Executive. 2014 hasn’t been any better: a downturn in votes; the rise of TUV; stability for the UUP; the clumsy endorsement of Pastor James McConnell; and now, the second public attack on him by Ian Paisley’s son Kyle.

For far too long for comfort the focus has been on Robinson’s leadership and that focus has clearly unsettled the rank and file.

The other problem for Robinson is that people now expect him to go. He won’t be standing as a candidate in the general or Assembly elections, making it difficult to lead the campaign. He looks and sounds bored – which is to be expected from someone who is clearly uncomfortable with his relationship with McGuinness and who is canny enough to be aware of the DUP’s internal and electoral challenges. There is talk of the DUP’s executive agreeing to split the roles of leader and First Minister, but I’m not sure that that solves the “Robinson problem”.

He is dithering. His departure is becoming like a Frank Sinatra farewell tour. He has nothing to gain, either personally or for the party, by hanging on. Authority is slipping from him. Colleagues are already eyeing up successors and choosing camps. All of this has been going on for at least a year – maybe slightly longer – and he has been aware of it.

So here’s the question for him: what advice would the Peter Robinson of 2003 have given to the Peter Robinson now leading the DUP?