Analysis: True to form, PM is being very slow to help Robinson

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers

The DUP and UUP had been expectantly looking to Theresa Villiers on Tuesday and, not for the first time in recent weeks, they were left disappointed.

Two weeks ago Mr Robinson, Nigel Dodds and Arlene Foster went to Downing Street with an ultimatum to suspend Stormont but emerged thunder-faced when the Prime Minister refused.

Since then, the party has attempted to have the Secretary of State revoke the licences of named former IRA members and has again sought to have Stormont suspended — even threatening to quit the Executive if that did not happen — without success.

Mr Cameron appears to be prepared to let Peter Robinson — who as the leader of unionism is under the most pressure to secure a resolution to the IRA’s re-emergence — to swing for a while.

In the history of the peace process, this tough stance by a Government is unorthodox.

A former civil servant said that by this stage Tony Blair would have been chairing crisis talks in Hillsborough.

But it is entirely in keeping with how David Cameron has approached Northern Ireland since entering Downing Street.

After he became Prime Minister, there were vociferous calls from Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness for more frequent meetings with him, as had been common under Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown.

Mr Cameron curtly made clear that they should deal with his secretary of state.

There is history between Mr Robinson and Mr Cameron. The Prime Minister remembers Iris Robinson’s triumphant nine-fingered salute to the Tory benches when the DUP’s MPs swung the key vote on 42-day detention of terror suspects in favour of the then Labour Government, after the Conservatives believed that they had a deal with the DUP.

And Mr Robinson will not have forgotten Mr Cameron’s personal jab at him when he visited Belfast on the eve of becoming Prime Minister in 2010.

While campaigning for the UUP-Tory alliance, Mr Cameron alluded to the ‘swish family Robinson’ jibe, saying that “there will be nothing swish about the Conservative and Unionist family”.

Mr Cameron may think that Mr Robinson’s obvious eagerness to avoid an election — and Sinn Fein’s professed eagerness to go to the polls — are sufficient pressure on the DUP leader to ultimately enter talks even if the Government gives him little.

But he will also know from history that at this juncture Mr Robinson desperately needs to be given something if he is to enter the talks in a strong position.

Otherwise, Mr Robinson’s problem could become Mr Cameron’s.