Analysis: Robinson’s clever devicery risks seeming like fear of the electorate

Parliament Buildings at Stormont early on Thursday, 10 September.  Picture by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye
Parliament Buildings at Stormont early on Thursday, 10 September. Picture by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

Journalists sometimes feel that they can confidently predict the future and yesterday I had most of this article written, believing that the DUP’s exit was inevitable.

As news leaked out from Dublin just before 5pm and then Peter Robinson began to speak, most of the words originally on this page became redundant and this new effort began.

Yesterday’s announcement was classic clever devicery from Peter Robinson.

He’s done it so many times — the temporary resignation after the Iris scandal, the ‘graduated response’, the resignation which never was over ‘comfort letters’ to IRA on the runs.

Nevertheless, Mr Robinson’s seemingly watertight words of Wednesday appeared so unambiguous that even DUP members were yesterday saying that there was no wriggle room.

But, after the DUP’s latest attempt at an Assembly adjournment and its most recent plea to the Government for suspension failed, Mr Robinson did not, as he seemed to have promised, bring Stormont down,

Such cunning has earned Mr Robinson respect within the DUP, even among some of those who would happily see him ousted.

But to the wider public, repeated threats of resignation which lead to nothing can be at best confusing and at worst appear weak.

There is a danger that, like the boy who kept crying ‘wolf!’, after so many false alarms no one will believe Mr Robinson when he actually does intend to resign.

The DUP see yesterday’s decision as pragmatic — a desperate final attempt to save devolution despite the actions of republicans.

Yet the longer this crisis goes on, the more that the DUP’s explanations sound like those of David Trimble which, at the time, they denounced as weakness.

The DUP is now hoping to pressure the Government with an absurd period of Stormont non-government, believing that in the end David Cameron will have no option but to suspend Stormont.

Mr Robinson’s apparent determination to save Stormont at all costs is likely to have been met with joy in Mike Nesbitt’s office.

Arguably, from the DUP’s perspective, getting out of the Executive now — in a situation where it appears doomed — and facing the electorate quickly would be less damaging than months of UUP and TUV attacks, as happened over the Maze.

Crucially, the DUP cannot know what revelations about the IRA are just around the corner.

Mr Robinson will know, because there has been internal discussions about the DUP’s approach, that he is the leader of a party which is now restless about his response to the re-emergence of the IRA.

Initially when the PSNI first linked the IRA to the McGuigan murder, Mr Robinson did not cut short his holiday. In as centralised a party as the DUP, that led to a noticeable vacuum.

That has been followed by an abortive attempt to bring an exclusion motion against Sinn Fein and then failed attempts to adjourn and suspend Stormont.

Significantly, some of those most unhappy at Mr Robinson’s leadership on this issue are not from the anti-Robinson wing of the DUP.

The DUP have repeatedly argued that resignation from the Executive should be a “last resort” and will argue that all of their other proposals have been about attempting to find any possible route out of the crisis without punishing the other parties.

The danger for the DUP leader is that to many sceptical unionist voters Mr Robinson’s decision not to go to the polls will reek of a fear of the electorate.