SERIOUSLY, what is going on with Peter Robinson at the moment? Everything and everyone seems to be irritating him.
What we are hearing and seeing is the verbal and body language more readily associated with an ‘outsider’ than a First Minister: which raises the question of whether or not he is doing it out of personal concern, or in order that he can be perceived (oh dear, there’s the perception thing again!) to be siding with those who believe they have got a bad deal from the Belfast Agreement and the peace/political process which accompanied it?
From the end of 1999 the DUP started to sneak ‘better deal’ or ‘fair deal’ into their language – probably to justify their decision to remain in the Assembly after Sinn Fein had entered the Executive.
For all intents and purposes the DUP has been driving the unionist bus since early 2004. They were behind the St Andrews Agreement. They were behind the deal which allowed them to kick-start the Executive with Sinn Fein in 2007. They were behind the Hillsborough Agreement of 2010.
The DUP wouldn’t even support a recent Assembly motion which referred to the ‘spirit of the Good Friday Agreement’ – because they insist they killed off and rewrote that Agreement.
So if sections of loyalism, working-class unionism and broader mainstream unionism are not happy with the present arrangements and impact of them, then most of the blame should be dumped on the DUP’s doorstep. And the DUP seems to realise that fact.
They can hardly blame the UUP, having insisted they negotiated and concluded a ‘better,’ ‘fairer’ deal. They can hardly blame Sinn Fein, having said in 2007, 2010 and 2011 that they had ‘achieved enough’ to justify entering a coalition with them.
But they still need someone to blame. The Parades Commission (which only exists because the Executive came up with nothing better).
The Alliance Party (which only holds the balance of power in Belfast because not enough unionists voted for DUP/UUP/TUV/PUP).
The Chief Constable (whose officers get attacked – physically and verbally – by loyalist and republican protestors alike).
The Judiciary (yet didn’t the DUP sign off on Sir Declan Morgan as Lord Chief Justice?).
The media (who are always portrayed as ‘soft’ on republicans). And I’m sure the list will be added to on a daily basis.
For the purposes of covering his own back Mr Robinson has encouraged an increasingly close relationship with the UUP: for, let’s face it, how can the UUP offer itself as a credible alternative to the DUP – let alone criticise it (and forget the cosmetic attacks on the ESA and welfare legislation) – if it has signed up to the Unionist Forum and ‘agreed’ (apparently Mr Nesbitt doesn’t like the term ‘unionist unity’) candidates?
Similarly, in circling the wagons Mr Robinson has managed to bring most of his potential critics into the camp with him.
I’m not saying, by the way, that the present situation is entirely the fault of the DUP, because Sinn Fein (increasingly supported by the SDLP) has gone out of its way to raise tensions, up the ante and poke a finger into unclosed wounds. That said, the DUP cannot be allowed to escape responsibility by the tried and trusted strategy of passing the buck and pointing the finger.
I also think that the present strategy owes much to electoral fears, not only in Belfast, but further afield. Some in the DUP fear the regeneration and rejuvenation of the PUP; but I think those fears are unfounded.
The PUP had its most potent electoral ‘moment’ over a decade ago and I don’t see any substantive evidence (despite the noises they are making across the social media) to support the argument for their recovery or, dare I say it, their resurrection.
No, the much bigger problem for the DUP – and the UUP, too – would be the emergence of an entirely new, credible, articulate, left-of-centre vehicle (a bit like the very successful Northern Ireland Labour Party of the 1950s/60s): a vehicle that could tap into a working-class discontent that goes beyond just flags and parades.
And, more crucially, a vehicle which isn’t lumbered with any loyalist paramilitary connections or baggage, since it is clear that that sort of baggage (look at the PUP and UDP) doesn’t attract many votes.
My perception (oh dear, I’ve said it again) is that the DUP – assisted by the membership, structures and ad-hoc committees of the Unionist Forum – is doing everything it can to sideline the PUP, as well as diminishing the likelihood of, or need for, a new party geared to the needs of working-class unionism.
That strategy may make some sort of sense if there was any guarantee of attracting back the votes which have been lost in the past: but it is fundamentally barking and doomed to failure if the only purpose is to sideline and silence by pretending that some sort of re-connect and re-engagement has been established.
The UUP and DUP are, in essence, middle-class parties with middle-class values: they cannot hope to attract working-class votes with that sort of agenda.
Trying to attract them by talk of culture and identity being chipped away, or of republicans getting too much, or of the system being stacked against the unionist family, is self-defeating and downright dangerous.
For the first time in a very long time Peter Robinson looks and sounds uncomfortable: no longer in control of the political agenda. He has a well-deserved, hard-earned reputation as a very canny political operator.
At the moment, though, everything he does looks terribly old hat and depressingly kneejerk.
That should worry all of us. Because if the supposedly undisputed leader of unionism isn’t in control of the agenda or events – then who is?
l Follow Alex every day on Twitter: @AlexKane221b