My favourite quote of last week came from Peter Robinson: “One thing I do know is if that the Assembly collapses, people will be protesting for it to be brought back within a year. They will see a difference if they have to pay water charges, see tuition fees rising to the level of the rest of the UK, when welfare payments here are the same as in England. There are a lot of things the Assembly does that it doesn’t get credit for.”
Well, let’s nail one thing. There will be no protests, demonstrations or marches demanding the return of the Assembly – even though Robinson may have a point that a majority would still prefer devolution to direct rule.
The problem most people have with the Assembly is that it presents itself as a snarly, dysfunctional political bear pit teetering from one crisis to the next. In the past three months alone senior members of the five Executive parties have warned that it is on the point of collapse.
So when Mr Robinson claims that the Assembly does a lot of things that it doesn’t get credit for (although I would suggest that most of those things would have been done under direct rule, anyway) he ignores the fact that nobody can see those things because they are obscured by day-to-day crisis politics.
Also, I don’t believe that people are afraid of difficult decisions being taken. Most people have had to tighten their household belts in the past few years and they are aware that the Executive has to look at other ways of raising income if they are to avoid water charges or increasing tuition fees. What irks them, though, is that cuts are happening everywhere and the Executive parties respond by bitching at and about each other.
We can see what has happened in Greece. We can see what is happening across the rest of the UK. We are not blind to economic realities. What people want most is a government that makes decisions and stands by those decisions. And that’s why they get increasingly angry and disengaged when they sense that those “big, difficult decisions” are not being made. That’s why direct rule looks like an option worth considering. That’s why they shrug their shoulders and switch off the news. That’s why they wonder if the collapse of the Assembly would, in fact, make a button of difference to their everyday lives.
The real question Mr Robinson needs to address is this: what can the DUP and Sinn Fein do to turn the Assembly/Executive into a machine that works? Or, putting that in a slightly different way, how do they reach the point at which the day-to-day crises don’t blind us to the “things the Assembly does and doesn’t get credit for”?
He spent most of his political/electoral career trying to return devolution to Northern Ireland. It was Robinson, more so than Paisley, who ensured that the DUP never tried to destroy the Assembly between 1998 and 2003 (which it could have done had it, along with Robert McCartney’s UKUP, withdrawn): and it was Robinson who recognised that the Assembly had to be kept on the road at all costs. It was Robinson – in a joint report with the UUP’s Harold McCusker and Frank Millar Jr in 1986 – who recognised early on that post-Anglo/Irish Agreement devolution would involve and require difficult decisions for unionists.
I’ve written before that Robinson was at the peak of his career in the aftermath of the 2011 Assembly election. The DUP was, for the first time ever, the majority voice of unionism. He looked and sounded confident. He had seen off challenges from the TUV and from that section of his party which wasn’t happy with the coup (and there really is no other word for it) that removed Ian Paisley. He was thinking about his legacy, too: wondering if he would now be judged well against those unionist giants, Carson and Craigavon.
He does not want to end his career – and it is coming to an end – with the collapse of the Assembly (even if it wouldn’t all be his fault) and unionism in the same sort of predicament it was in back in 1995, when David Trimble became leader of the UUP.
Robinson sold the 2007 deal with Sinn Fein as the antidote to the “serial weaknesses and instability of Trimble’s rollover unionism”. He sold it as a triumph of the DUP’s “negotiating skills and resolution”. He sold it as the “best form of devolution” that unionism and Northern Ireland had seen since the collapse of the Stormont Parliament in March 1972.
Yet here he is, 43 years later, acknowledging that the DUP deal – which was always his deal, of course – is on the brink of collapse. For all of his withering critique of Trimble he has ended up in a pretty similar situation.
No, strike that, he’s in a worse situation. The difference between now and 2003 (the beginning of the end for the UUP) is that there is no obvious unionist alternative to the DUP. He has seen off all of them. Arguably – and it is one for wider debate – unionism is in a much worse state now than it was in that 2003-07 period.
I still think the Assembly will survive this present crisis: but it survives in a half-dead Hammer horror form. And that, more than anything, must hurt Robinson.