Amid growing intra-DUP debate about whether unionism needs to prepare for the possibility of a united Ireland, the party last night said that Arlene Foster saw Peter Robinson’s latest controversial comments before they were published.
In a 1,700 word article yesterday, the former DUP leader repeatedly denounced those who said that a united Ireland would never come so there was no need to prepare for such an eventuality and dismissed as “claptrap” from “shrill voices” the fear that “such matters should not even be discussed as it may provide momentum towards the very outcome we seek to avoid”.
That article led to a swift public rebuttal from DUP MP Sammy Wilson, pictured, who said that Mr Robinson was “plain wrong” to suggest that unionists needed to consider a future border poll and what might follow it if unionism lost.
Mr Robinson’s comments came less than a week after he raised the issue at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties, which had on that occasion been immediately rebutted by Mr Wilson.
However, Mrs Foster remained silent on the issue until last night when she responded to the controversy for the first time.
When asked about the perception that Mr Robinson’s article could be viewed as stinging criticism of his successor – who has not agreed that unionists should prepare for the possibility of a united Ireland – a DUP spokesman told the News Letter that Mrs Foster “does not view Peter Robinson’s Belfast Telegraph article as an attack on the DUP leadership”.
He highlighted that in one paragraph of the article Mr Robinson had “praised the party leader” and said that the former DUP leader had “highlighted and exposed the rank hypocrisy of the UUP on the matter of a border poll”.
The party spokesman said that Mr Robinson had “worked with the party before placing the article in the Belfast Telegraph” and that “Mrs Foster and a number of others had advance sight of the final draft”.
The DUP spokesman said that Mr Robinson is now “a private citizen” who is “at liberty to express his views” and “we consider it important that those with experience feel able to contribute to the important debates of the day”.
He added: “It is important that focus on a border poll does not detract from the need for delivery on the here and now matters such as our schools, roads and hospitals.”
Mr Robinson stressed in the article that he was not advocating a border poll or the shape of any united Ireland but had referred to “the need to agree a process for negotiations, time scales and not only the means of reaching agreement on all the particulars but also who would be involved in negotiating such an agreement” if there was a vote for a united Ireland.
He added: “What I have sought is that unionists should be actively getting the rules and procedures concerning the conducting of a border poll and its aftermath sorted out to their satisfaction – now.”
As well as the internal DUP criticism of Mr Robinson, the former first minister was also, less surprisingly, criticised by the Ulster Unionist Party leader.
Robin Swann said that “for a man so long in politics, he has a remarkably thin skin”.
The North Antrim MLA said: “When rightly criticised for saying that Northern Ireland should be planning for the possibility of a united Ireland, he attempts to blame the UUP...Instead of setting out plans for a border poll, Peter`s time would be better spent extolling the virtues of the Union and encouraging his colleagues to veer away from actions which have brought Parliament, the Assembly and unfortunately unionism into disrepute.
“Scandals such as RHI, Red Sky and NAMA do nothing to create a ‘settled political environment’ which Peter Robinson now so wistfully reminisces about.”