Analysis: Robinson got to the top. But what did he achieve once he got there?

Peter Robinson, pictured outside Stormont Castle in November 2013, around the time of the failed multi-party Haass talks process
Peter Robinson, pictured outside Stormont Castle in November 2013, around the time of the failed multi-party Haass talks process

Whatever one’s view of Peter Robinson, even the First Minister’s political enemies regarded him as a supremely capable foe.

When he was born in 1948, his east Belfast parents could scarcely have had any reason to believe that their working class son – no matter how able – could one day be First Minister of Northern Ireland.

Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson at an Ulster Resistance rally in Ballymena, 1986

Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson at an Ulster Resistance rally in Ballymena, 1986

Every Prime Minister of Northern Ireland had been from ‘big house unionism’.

Even the last in that line, Brian Faulker (who somewhat broke that mould as the inheritor of ‘new money’) was the son of the owner of the largest shirt maker in the world at that time, and had gone to Queen’s University.

By contrast, Peter Robinson was educated at Annadale Grammar School and Castlereagh College before working in an estate agent’s office.

Fifty years earlier he would most likely have ended up working in the shipyard.

Deputy First Minister for Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness speaking at a press conference in the Capitol Building, Washington DC, with Peter Robinson

Deputy First Minister for Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness speaking at a press conference in the Capitol Building, Washington DC, with Peter Robinson

But in an era – and a party – which rewarded raw ability, Robinson quickly became indispensable to DUP leader Ian Paisley.

The pair had a complex relationship which is still not fully understood.

While over recent decades Robinson was seen as a moderating influence on the party’s founder, and then on the party itself once he became leader, it is clear from recently declassified Government files that for a period in the early 1980s the Government feared Robinson more than Paisley.

At that point – where, when once asked if he regarded the UDA as terrorists, he said “I regard them as counter-terrorists; it’s a fact of life” – the Government believed that loyalist paramilitaries saw Robinson as a figure who would not abandon them when loyalist violence led to criticism, unlike the then-DUP leader who was being derided as “the grand old Duke of York”.

Ulster Unionists give very muted reaction to Robinson standing down.

The hints of a more pragmatic Robinson emerged publicly in the years after the Anglo-Irish Agreement when he, along with Ulster Unionists Harold McCusker and Frank Millar, authored the 1987 Task Force Report.

When its message – that unionists could not simply stand outside protesting but would have to engage with the Government and nationalists to secure a better deal – was rejected by Paisley, Robinson resigned as DUP deputy leader.

But his period in the cold was short lived, and within months the Paisley-Robinson leadership was intact once more. Despite private strains, it would remain publicly intact and politically productive for more than two decades.

Two of the events for which Robinson is now most remembered had little to do with politics. The first was the ‘invasion’ of Clontibret in which he led a mob across the border into the Monaghan village, and the second involved his wife’s affair with a teenager.

Robinson’s political powers of recovery from the latter incident – where it appeared for several days that his political career was over – showed him to be a great political survivor who kept coming back from political death.

When the Belfast Agreement was signed in 1998, it is easy now to forget that the DUP – virtually alone outside the big political tent – were told that they were finished as a serious political force.

It was the ruthless brilliance of Robinson, as much and possibly more than the flamboyant rhetoric of Paisley, which fought the DUP in to a position where it became the dominant unionist party.

Although the DUP were helped by David Trimble’s discomfiture as republicans stalled on delivering decommissioning, Robinson provided a brutal demonstration of how opposition politics can be done.

But the savagely personalised nature of the attacks – Trimble was denounced as a “modern-day Lundy” full of “vanity and pigheadedness” – meant that Robinson could never, as he had hoped, swallow up the UUP entirely.

Too many UUP members held Robinson personally responsible for creating a hostile atmosphere (which led to scenes such as Trimble being physically jostled by DUP supporters after retaining his seat in 2001) for him to ever persuade them to vote DUP or amalgamate the parties.

When a senior politician retires, broadcasters often ask ‘how will they be remembered by history?’

The truth is that we cannot know because historians will have access to information – from declassified government records, interviews and possibly books involving Robinson – which is for now not known.

However, it is fair to say that judging Robinson’s period in office as First Minister is much more difficult than that of either Trimble or Paisley.

For all his flaws, Trimble will be remembered as the unionist leader who did the deal in 1998; Paisley’s period of less than a year as First Minister achieved little but his enthusiastic embrace of power-sharing with Sinn Fein make it clearly distinguishable.

Robinson’s tenure, much like the man himself, is far from straightforward. He has preserved Stormont for the longest period since 1972, but it has been a period of perpetual instability and crisis.

He has succeeded in modest changes to the DUP, moving it to a more moderate position.

But that shift never matched his own heady rhetoric of “no more us-and-them” .

And, given what he said of Trimble, his decision to remain in government with Sinn Fein despite the revelation that the IRA Army Council exists and retains weapons will mean historians either judge him as having matured politically or been guilty of rank hypocrisy.

The DUP has lost its iron discipline under his watch and in recent years Robinson has appeared increasingly detached even from his own Assembly party and unpopular with a swathe of voters.

There has been internal pressure on him to go because many in the party now see him as an electoral liability.

He had broadened the party’s appeal, but in doing so had confused its previous simple messages. Now even some DUP members – on both the ‘liberal’ and ‘traditionalist’ wings of the party – are privately perplexed as to what it stands for.

Unlike Trimble, Robinson has made the decision to quit himself – even if under internal duress – rather than cling on and face the electorate one final time.

Peter Robinson was the brilliant builder of a political party.

But it is difficult to escape the conclusion that once he had built that party and become its leader he didn’t really have a clear strategy for where he wanted to take unionism.