The DUP may look strong, but it is also vulnerable

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

We don’t have enough mud or jelly up at Stormont — because if we did we could allow the DUP and Sinn Fein to wrestle in it.

It wouldn’t be a particularly edifying spectacle and it certainly wouldn’t deliver any agreements, but it would, at least, be a darn sight more entertaining than the clumsy, entirely predictable sham fights we get now.

I mean, let’s be honest, watching John O’Dowd and Sammy Wilson is a bit like watching two rusted, befuddled Daleks fall down the stairs as they attempt to ‘exterminate’ each other’s arguments.

They don’t listen to each other. They don’t speak to each other. They don’t respect each other. They don’t even belong on the same planet.

But here’s the thing: the DUP and Sinn Fein have concluded that they have nothing to lose by prolonging the spats and orchestrated squabbles.

They have done the electoral mathematics and realised that they’re not going to be robbed of their top dog positions if the peace process is replaced with a wrestling-in-mud process.

It’s no skin off their noses if turnout continues to fall, so long as those who do continue to vote continue to vote for us-and-them parties.

In other words, vote DUP to prevent Sinn Fein taking the post of First Minister and vote Sinn Fein to maximise the chances of Sinn Fein reaping the benefits of unionist bickering and vote splitting.

If the SDLP, UUP and Alliance lose votes and MLAs along the way (which seems pretty likely the way things are going) then so much the better for the hand-me-down Montagues and Capulets who prefer the settling of old scores to the opening of new doors.

And now Edwin Poots has decided to liven up proceedings by wandering off the reservation and starting his own spat.

His one has a novel twist though, because he seems to be just as miffed with Simon Hamilton and Peter Robinson as he is with Sinn Fein. Yet he also seems to have missed the memo from a few weeks ago, which suggested (nothing is ever stated or confirmed anymore when it comes to Executive ‘decisions’) that both parties had reached agreement on the latest round of budget talks and would revisit them around October.

But I get the feeling that Edwin is increasingly concerned that he may not be the minister by the time October does come around!

Now then, short of dressing up as a banshee and hiding in hospital morgues, I’m not sure if it would have been possible for Edwin to have been any scarier about our health service than he has been over the past couple of weeks.

Dr Hannibal Lecter is of a cheerier disposition. The whole thing is, so he would have us believe, crumbling around our ears. It’s not fit for purpose. It won’t be able to cope with a flu epidemic. There won’t even be enough trollies for patients, let alone enough beds.

He has said that he won’t agree to any more cuts and won’t implement cuts already demanded of him. He has also hinted at resignation.

What I’m not so clear about is why he has chosen to be as brutally honest and crushingly critical at this particular moment: a moment when Peter Robinson is not even in Northern Ireland.

He says that he has kept Robinson’s “senior advisers” in the loop. But again, why now? Why couldn’t he have done it before Robinson left, or waited until Robinson came back?

He must have known that interviewers would push him on his position if Robinson didn’t support his comments: and known that he would be asked about his personal support for Robinson as leader and First Minister.

He must have known that his actions would place more question marks around Robinson’s control of and authority within the DUP? More than anything, he must have known that the nature of his comments and the round of interviews required would put the word ‘CRISIS” back in the headlines: crisis in the Executive, crisis in the political process and crisis in the DUP.

Which brings me back to a column last summer when I argued that Peter Robinson should have had his exit strategy well in hand.

I took the view that “it isn’t going to get any better for him and he shouldn’t make the mistake, as so many leaders do, of outstaying his welcome”.

It hasn’t got any better. In May 2011 he was master of all he surveyed: unchallenged within his own party, as well as within broader unionism, and with more people voting for the DUP than for all of the other unionist parties combined.

That’s no longer the case. The DUP is no longer the majority voice of unionism and Robinson’s successors are circling and briefing against him. The Executive is congenitally dysfunctional and Robinson has no way of holding Sinn Fein to account on welfare, education or collective policy.

Even Simon Hamilton admits that John O’Dowd runs his education department like “an independent republic”.

Crisis follows crisis and the stability of the process cannot be taken for granted.

So much for Robinson’s boasts since 2007 that the DUP had delivered an agreement “measurably better than anything agreed to by David Trimble”.

So why hold on? The DUP does have a number of people who could step up to the mark and replace him: they could even go down the route of splitting the posts of Leader and First Minister and widening the leadership team.

I actually think he would be more useful to the DUP as their day-to-day leader (he remains the best organiser, strategist, tactician and campaigner they have ever had) rather than as a First Minister who can barely break wind without a note from Martin McGuinness.

The DUP may look strong, but it is also vulnerable. Robinson has some crucial decisions to make about his future, the party’s future, the future of unionism and the nature of the relationship between unionism and Sinn Fein.

The sooner he makes those decisions the better.

He knows what happened to Ian Paisley. He needs to be careful that the same thing doesn’t happen to him.