After a year of public silence, former first minister Peter Robinson has re-emerged publicly on the eve of today’s snap Assembly election.
In an unusual 1,200-word article on his personal Facebook page, the former DUP leader said that he had resisted the temptation to comment publicly until recent events meant that “my concern for the very existence of the institutions is greater than my desire for a quiet retirement”.
Reminding the public that when he left office the Fresh Start agreement was in place and the DUP and Sinn Fein were working together, he said that this election is now “one of constitutional importance” and warned that “the consequences of regression are many and may well be catastrophic”.
Mr Robinson’s comments come after overnight viewing figures showed that a massive audience watched Tuesday night’s final pre-election leaders’ debate, in what might be a sign that turnout is about to increase when people go to the polls today.
And, in another eve of election development a judge ruled that there is nothing to stop Economy Minister Simon Hamilton publishing the names of businesses who are RHI claimants.
However, last night Mr Hamilton’s department did not use the legal ruling to publish the names before the election but instead said that it would do so “as soon as possible”.
In a statement released through a public relations firm, the Renewable Heat Association, which brought the court case, appeared to suggest that the media should not publish RHI claimants’ names even when they are released by the department.
The RHA stressed that “the simple publication of names is, in no way, evidence of wrongdoing” and that most claimants are entirely operating within the rules of the scheme.
In his Facebook article, Mr Robinson said that last year’s election in which the DUP and Sinn Fein had emerged dominant within unionism and nationalism respectively had meant that there should have been five years in which “Northern Ireland should have been benefiting from a settled political environment with politicians working to deliver”.
He said there was “no question that mistakes were made with the renewable heat scheme – that much everyone agrees” but said that around the world mistakes in government schemes happen “without it amounting to a crisis with the potential of bringing down the political institutions”.
Mr Robinson said that “if culpability and claims of wrongdoing at any level are sustained, then the inquiry judge should recommend sanctions as appropriate”.
However, Mr Robinson said that there was no need for an election prior to that process concluding.
The DUP veteran said that instead “we have had an increasingly fractious contest that has further divided and limited the ability to rebuild the political institutions”.
And the former First Minister, who worked closely with Martin McGuinness over the course of eight years in Stormont Castle, said that “I cannot help feeling, no matter what now will be said, that had Martin McGuinness been in good health a breakdown would have been avoided”.
He went on: “As it is, the more belligerent elements in Sinn Fein have seized their opportunity and are seeking to advance their agenda regardless of imperilling the political structures.
“When Arlene was installed as First Minister and leader of Northern Ireland’s largest party I told her she would have a short honeymoon and then they would come for her.
“The holder of the top post on entering office becomes the target of every envious politician and party. But even by that standard she has been harshly treated over recent weeks.”
Mr Robinson was also critical of the media, alleging that “when the public inquiry is completed, and suggestions of wrongdoing are found to be groundless, the media will not fill their programmes and columns with apologies and the self-serving politicians in Sinn Fein, the SDLP, UUP and Alliance who have directed thinly disguised accusations of corruption against her will fall silent. Such is the injustice of modern day politics.”
And Mr Robinson, who for years was the DUP’s expert negotiator, set out his concerns about the possibility of “major negotiations” after today’s election.
He said that in such a situation it wold not be a talks process about “Sinn Fein’s wish list alone” but that unionists would arrive with their own demands “to deal with the weaknesses of the present structures, chief among them will be the mandatory nature of the coalition, the jointery of the Executive Office, community designations and a very different emphasis on legacy matters”.
Mr Robinson also said that a negotiation on the scale proposed by Sinn Fein could not be completed in the few weeks in which legally the parties have to decide whether they can form an Executive.
He said: “Almost inevitably, the Assembly will be suspended and Northern Ireland will be back to Direct Rule”.
Mr Robinson said that because of Sinn Fein’s actions there was “an imperative for a high unionist turn-out” in today’s election.
Appealing for parties to “step back” and allow time for talks, he added with force: “While the election is unstoppable the headlong rush into destruction is not.”
Polls close tonight at 10pm. Counting will begin tomorrow morning. Depending on decisions at each count centre, counting could either continue late into the night or be suspended and resume again on Saturday morning.