Analysis: Confident UUP now views Peter Robinson as an asset

The UUP would be happy if Peter Robinson survived as DUP leader
The UUP would be happy if Peter Robinson survived as DUP leader

Mike Nesbitt only made one mention of Robinson in his speech to the UUP conference on Saturday – and even that remark was in relation to “the great educationalist Ken Robinson”, rather than the First Minister.

Mr Nesbitt had an easy task on Saturday, addressing a party which is more united and successful than it has been for years.

And he used the occasion to take modest risks by hinting at more liberal future stances on issues such as gay marriage and the Irish language.

But the absence of any explicit reference to Peter Robinson was striking, given how unpopular Mr Robinson now is among a swathe of unionism.

We know – because the roles were reversed when David Trimble found himself in a similar position just over a decade ago – that Mr Robinson’s approach in such situations would be to do everything he could to knock out even a slightly wounded opponent.

In a 1998 speech – near the beginning of the ferocious DUP-UUP feud under Trimble’s leadership – Mr Robinson repeatedly focused on mr Trimble, describing him as “a modern-day Lundy” full of “vanity and pigheadedness” and telling delegates that “no one man has done so much to undermine the Union, divide unionism, endanger the safety and lives of the unionist people and erode our defences”.

The fact that there was none of that sort of rhetoric from Mr Nesbitt on Saturday may not entirely be explained by the fact that his approach to politics differs from that of the politically aggressive DUP leader.

There was a feeling among some senior delegates – though unspoken from the platform – that they do not want the DUP to axe Mr Robinson.

Given the fear which in past years the DUP’s master tactician inspired among many in the UUP, that is an extraordinary situation.

But Mr Robinson personally – even beyond the problems which the DUP as a party is facing – has become the focus of much current unionist disillusionment.

There have been rampant rumours within the DUP over recent weeks that Mr Robinson is on his way out, possibly within weeks.

And in that, a UUP which has become confident, and even comfortable, in taking on Mr Robinson’s DUP would find itself facing a less certain electoral contest.

The UUP are not quite organising a ‘Save Peter’ campaign, but they are likely to be among the most disappointed when the DUP decides that the First Minister has outlived his usefulness.

On Saturday, Mr Nesbitt didn’t seem terribly eager to lunge forward and attempt to land a fatal blow on the wounded DUP leader.