Analysis: Incredible indecision in Robinson’s handling of Palmers

First Minister of Northern Ireland Peter Robinson arrives at Downing Street, London, for meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday September 1, 2015. See PA story ULSTER Politics. Photo credit should read: John Stillwell/PA Wire
First Minister of Northern Ireland Peter Robinson arrives at Downing Street, London, for meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday September 1, 2015. See PA story ULSTER Politics. Photo credit should read: John Stillwell/PA Wire

In emails of Hillary Clinton this week released by the US State Department, there is an unflattering description of Peter Robinson.

A confidential March 2010 briefing states that Mr Robinson was “still exhibiting signs of weak leadership within his party”.

Husband and wife Jenny and John Palmer

Husband and wife Jenny and John Palmer

At that point, it recorded that Mr Robinson (in a tactic oft since repeated) was threatening to resign if the UUP did not vote in favour of devolving policing and justice powers to Stormont. In the event, the UUP voted against but Mr Robinson did not resign.

Another of Mrs Clinton’s emails records what her adviser Sidney Blumenthal saw as further evidence of indecision after revelations about his wife’s affair and links to property developers: “Robinson had an opportunity to save himself, perhaps, by declaring himself for engagement on devolution, freeing himself of the DUP hardliners and throwing himself on public opinion, but was incapable of acting”.

Over the years there have been many criticisms of Mr Robinson, but those suggestions of indecision have rarely been made.

In fact, Mr Robinson has often been accused of acting too precipitously, such as his threat to resign over revelations about ‘letters of comfort’ to on the run IRA members.

Peter Robinson has been described as 'indecisive'

Peter Robinson has been described as 'indecisive'

Yet the example of Jenny Palmer — and the current crisis at Stormont — suggests that sometimes the First Minister suffers from chronic indecision.

When Mrs Palmer spoke out so dramatically against her party, it was widely assumed in political circles that she would be immediately expelled. Yet rather than doing that — or decisively backing her and removing Mr Brimstone — Mr Robinson stalled for time, only decisively moving against Mrs Palmer after more than a year and at a point where she had just been vindicated.

Likewise, in the DUP’s response to the resumption of murder by IRA members, there is concern among some DUP members at the party’s lack of a clear plan.

The DUP initially set out to bring an exclusion motion to put Sinn Fein out of the Executive, then attempted to extend Stormont’s summer holiday and finally asked the Prime Minister to suspend Stormont.

After all of those failed, there were suggestions last night that the DUP may now boycott the Assembly by not turning up — though not walk out of the Executive, something which would have cost hundreds of thousands of pounds in salaries between ministers and special advisers.

Rash decision-making can have devastating consequences. But the Palmer saga shows that a failure to act decisively can also be deeply damaging.