A DUP Assemblyman privately briefed against Peter Robinson, telling a Government official that the party’s then deputy leader was “cold and calculating”, declassified government files have revealed.
The unidentified man, who is described as “a fairly prominent backbencher, but is certainly not in the leadership of the party”, told NIO civil servant J E McConnell that there could be a devastating strike as “the power workers are in Peter Robinson’s pocket”.
As part of pan-unionist protests at the hated Anglo-Irish Agreement, DUP and UUP members were not meant to be meeting with senior Government officials, a fact which makes the DUP Assemblyman’s blunt comments all the more remarkable.
Officials, who generally identified their contacts by name, began to refer to them more obliquely in order to protect them in case of leaks and that appears to be why the DUP Assemblyman is not named.
The revelation is further evidence of a degree of internal and still unexplained turmoil within the DUP in 1986. Though at the time Ian Paisley and Mr Robinson were publicly united, earlier this year Dr Paisley claimed before his death that Mr Robinson’s ‘invasion’ of Clontibret in 1986 should not have happened and suggested that it may have been an attempt to seize the DUP leadership.
Mr Robinson dismissed that as a “recollection failure” and said that it was Dr Paisley who was meant to have led the cross-border incursion.
The unnamed DUP Assemblyman told Mr McConnell, an official in the NIO’s Political Affairs Division which gathered intelligence on the political landscape and presented advice to ministers, that he was “representing the views of Protestants in his district” and was “heavily involved with the Ulster Clubs [hard line groups established to oppose the agreement] in his own area”.
Mr McConnell’s note of the March 21 1986 meeting – which has been released at the Public Record Office in Belfast – records: “He talked about the Ulster Clubs and told me their plans are being laid with a view to creating chaos during the marching season and because of this he did not believe further one-day ‘Days of Action’ will be necessary.
“A long-term strike has not been ruled out and he believes it would be successful because the power workers are in Peter Robinson’s pocket through the 1986 Committee.
“DUP are content with the action taken so far, including those by the bully boys in their midst, though he himself believes that the more violent scenes are to be deplored.”
A comment at the bottom of the note added: “During the discussion when he was speaking of Dr Paisley he spoke with affection. However, this was not the same sentiment when he spoke of Mr Robinson.
“He told me that while he had known Robinson for some 12 years he had not spoken to him for more than 10 minutes at a time and that Robinson did not encourage personal contact or friendship. He described him as being cold and calculating.”
In another file, a March 25 1986 memo from Mark Elliott in the NIO also referred to Mr Robinson’s position within the DUP, saying that he was “not liked” by colleagues.
The official made clear that despite unionist fury at the agreement, he believed that “many UUP politicians are now seriously looking for alternatives”.
He went on: “They accept that the Agreement will remain in place until both Governments can be persuaded to modify or remove it, and that there is no realistic chance of achieving this unless a credible alternative framework can be agreed.
“In this search for alternatives, they are looking for assistance from various quarters: from Dublin (the Irish Government have had a number of approaches, none as yet with any constructive ideas); from the SDLP; from the opposition parties in Westminster; even to a limited extent from the NIO.”
The memo went on to say that even unionist “hard-liners” were “uncertain about intensifying confrontation”.
It said: “Some of the DUP are trying to play down the differences between themselves and the UUP. Robinson, though clearly the strong man of the party, is not liked.
“Paisley still has great influence; and he can talk to Hume, although it is far from clear that their dialogue can achieve anything.”