Boisterous DUP MLAs back leader over response to letters revelations

Peter Robinson in the Assembly chamber
Peter Robinson in the Assembly chamber

If, from his office in the House of Lords or elsewhere, David Trimble was watching Friday’s Assembly proceedings, he may have felt pangs of envy.

News Letter columnist Alex Kane, who when he was an influential UUP member saw Lord Trimble at close quarters, on Friday morning observed that Trimble would have been “devoured” by Peter Robinson if he had brought to a recalled Assembly the sort of deal now on offer.

It wouldn’t just have been Mr Robinson who would have savaged Trimble in such a scenario; a chunk of the UUP, either publicly in the chamber or privately in the surrounding corridors, would have made known their unease.

Yet yesterday there wasn’t a hint of rebellion from the massed ranks of the DUP’s MLAs as every member who spoke firmly endorsed their leader’s actions over the on the runs crisis.

There must be points where Lord Trimble wonders what he could have achieved had he been in command of his party to the extend that Mr Robinson dominates his.

Friday’s emergency debate had evoked memories of the Trimble era because of the prospect that Mr Robinson had put himself on the brink of resignation.

But, given his complete acceptance of the Government’s terms the previous evening and withdrawal of the resignation threat, the entire debate — called by the DUP to discuss the crisis —had an air of irrelevance to it.

Nevertheless, at noon yesterday the chamber was packed, if not exactly expectant.

There were some sharp exchanges and open venom on display. The fallacy that younger post-Troubles politicians are necessarily more moderate was exposed at various points, not least when Paul Givan shouted at Alex Maskey “Prison was too good for you”.

Although Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness verbally attacked each other, and while at times the DUP’s backbenchers were particularly boisterous, there was nothing in Friday’s proceedings which has not surfaced in previous highly-charged Stormont debates which have touched on the Troubles. After each of those, the DUP and Sinn Fein have been able to work together, suggesting that although relations have for months been strained, the parties realise that they have no obvious political option but to continue in power together.

Predictably, the debate came to life when, near its end, Jim Allister spoke and refused to be silenced by the heckling DUP benches as he talked beyond his allotted time to the wrath of the speaker.

Like some irrepressible thundering street preacher, Mr Allister single-handedly talked over the DUP’s heckling 37 MLAs — a visual manifestation of how in political terms he wields influence far beyond his mandate.

But Mr Allister’s jibe at Arlene Foster that she had gone “on the run” the previous day risked appearing in poor taste, given what Mrs Foster’s family has suffered at the hands of the IRA, something she later highlighted with force.

For the most part, Mr Robinson — who can sometimes erupt in the chamber — sat fairly impassively, only infrequently joining in with the heckling of his MLAs. The few points where he shouted across the chamber were when MLAs claimed that the DUP must have known about the ‘comfort letters’, something the DUP pointed out had not been substantiated.

Although he now faces a potentially resurgent TUV in the looming elections, the apparent absence of a serious threat from the Ulster Unionists — a party capable of commanding much more widespread support — mean that the DUP leader does not face anything like the difficulties of his predecessor Lord Trimble.

On Friday the SDLP attempted to skewer Sinn Fein about its deal, while Alliance put distance between its justice minister and the letters.

But this on the runs crisis, with more and more details leaking out as May’s elections near, may have several political leaders feeling uneasy about what is yet to come.