Analysis: United applause for Robinson’s Trimble-esque rhetoric

First Minister Peter Robinson during his final speech as DUP leader to delegates at the party's conference outside Belfast on Saturday
First Minister Peter Robinson during his final speech as DUP leader to delegates at the party's conference outside Belfast on Saturday

There was a section in Peter Robinson’s speech which was met with vocal approval in the La Mon Hotel ball room at lunchtime on Saturday – and that in itself was an illustration of what the outgoing leader has managed to do.

In a section attacking the Ulster Unionists – though in a much restrained version of what Mr Robinson would have said just a few years ago – he joked that it would take no Ulster Unionists to change a light bulb because, now in Opposition, “the Ulster Unionist Party can’t change anything”.

In several pointed criticisms of Mike Nesbitt’s party, Mr Robinson went on to say: “Carping and criticising from the sidelines is easy. The real challenge is to take the responsibility of putting things right.

“The Ulster Unionist Party fled the battlefield and left the DUP to do what was right for Northern Ireland.”

If ‘Ulster Unionist Party’ was replaced with ‘DUP’, that could be a quote from David Trimble, circa 1999.

Yet Mr Robinson has – outwardly, at least, on the evidence of the conference – convinced DUP members that he is right to remain in the Executive and work closer with Sinn Fein, despite the revelation in recent weeks that IRA decommissioning was not complete, as previously claimed.

Who could have imagined a decade ago that in a DUP leader’s conference speech just weeks after it was revealed that the IRA retains guns, the word ‘decommissioning’ would not be uttered even once?

Yet the DUP leader insisted that the DUP-Sinn Fein deal would “tackle paramilitarism head on”.

Most modern party conferences are now glorified press releases, with even badly divided parties (such as the UUP a few years ago) rarely descending into open warfare at their conference.

And on Saturday there was barely a hint of the internal strains, with some of those who have been briefing against Mr Robinson choosing to loudly applaud him.

With an Assembly election now just six months away, MLAs in particular may be tempted to put internal rows to one side – at least until then.

Though a perfectly adequate orator, Mr Robinson’s success owed far more to his brain than to his lips and Saturday’s final speech was solid rather than spectacular.

There was none of the major policy initiatives – such as the now seldom-mentioned DUP drive to get Catholic votes – which dominated past Robinson conference speeches.

But there were some suitably eloquent words from the First Minister as one of the big beasts of Ulster politics attempted to shape how he will be remembered.

Mr Robinson’s derisive words for the UUP in “the wilderness” of opposition were heartily cheered by delegates.

But just 17 years after the DUP was given a similar message as it stood almost alone in opposition to the Belfast Agreement in 1998, that party had become the all-conquering force in unionism.

Mr Robinson’s decision not to attack Sinn Fein in his speech may be a hint to his party: the UUP will only languish in Opposition if the DUP and Sinn Fein can together make the Executive work.