Taking every pawn isn't how this chess game is to be won

NEWS Letter columnist Liam Clarke writes an open letter to First Minister Peter Robinson.

Dear Peter

Over the years I have watched your progress as a politician, we have often talked and you have thrown a few angry words in my direction, even threat of legal action. For all that I have nearly always written positively about you – you have perhaps the best brain in local politics and, I believe, you have what it takes to govern well.

You could blow it all in the next few weeks. That would deal a huge blow, not only to the legacy handed down to you by Ian Paisley, who did the heavy lifting of power sharing for you, but to the entire unionist cause. The Belfast Telegraph poll was a small sample, but, even so, the results are a wakeup call. Martin McGuinness is considered the most satisfactory minister, not just a satisfactory minister, by 11 per cent of Protestants.

Your main fault has been to let short term tactical issues and party management consideration override your strategic vision. You have been cute rather than wise in your dealings with Sinn Fein, who lack your grasp for the fine print of politics. You out-manoeuvred them at St Andrews, where they celebrated gains which turned to ashes in their mouths. Their devil was in the detail. You have beaten them in every little issue in Stormont, they have got nowhere on anything.

That is how you have kept your party dissidents in line. Regular humiliation of the Shinners, duly gloated over by the likes of Gregory Campbell, has proved a winner so far. But in the long term this approach painted you into a corner? Has it allowed Gregory to make your decisions for you?

In September I wrote "the DUP won most of the spats in the executive, but, in the process, all sense of partnership was destroyed". You are like a chess player who takes every pawn you can, forgetting that that isn't how the game is won. There has been a loss of confidence in the administration and it is not mainly about policing and justice, parading, personal protection weapons or the other issues you mention.

People want devolution to work but confidence is leaking over the executive's inability to make decision and the scale of waste that entails. You promised an end to "Stop/Go" government but you have produced what the civil servants call stuttering devolution. To take one example you successfully blocked the seven local council model that Sinn Fein wanted. Your party also held up the eleven council model because of unfavourable boundary changes between Lisburn and Belfast. The result has been tens of millions wasted and the likelihood of carrying on with 26 councils.

Many don't see this as a victory for unionism, they see it as an arrogant waste of money and as evidence that devolution isn't working. Voters want a government that can take decisions quickly and regularly and which factors in the cost of delay.

Last month in your conference speech you clearly saw this difficulty when you called for an end to the attitude of ‘if it’s good for them, it can’t be good for us”.

“Sometimes it’s even worse,” you went on. “When we ask for something, the temptation is to retreat if the other side decide it might not be such a bad idea after all.”

The problem with hammering Sinn Fein on every detail isn’t just that it costs money and slows things down; it destroys their incentive to be in government. On Sunday Declan Kearney, Sinn Fein’s chairman, made a speech which contained a lot of rhetoric but he had one solid point when he said that “political institutions which fail to protect and deliver equality for all citizens are of no political value to anyone”.

You have missed your best chance to move on devolution of policing and justice. That came when you secured the policing budget from Gordon Brown, underwritten by David Cameron. The PSNI, the Policing Board, the IMC and even the Police Federation were all urging you to move. It could have been a great moment for unionism, as I wrote in the News Letter at the time, it was as good as it gets.

You could have proclaimed a victory despite the reservations of some of your MPs, instead you let the moment pass.

It is not as easy to move now. It will look like a bit of a climb down. The best you can hope for is that Gordon Brown and Brian Cowen will find some concession to save your face. But, even if they do, it won’t have been worth it. It will have been a lucky escape.

Yours, Liam