Ben Lowry: Amid Irish Sea border crisis, Peter Robinson has long experience of what is and is not politically feasible

Peter Robinson’s column in this newspaper yesterday generated huge interest on both sides of the land border and both sides of the Irish Sea.

Saturday, 13th February 2021, 12:00 pm
Updated Sunday, 14th February 2021, 9:02 am
Peter Robinson with Ian Paisley in 1985 after the Anglo Irish Agreement. Mr Robinson is a shrewd tactician with a memory of loyalist and unionist campaign successes and failures.

(see below for a link to Mr Robinson’s column)

The former first minister effectively said that the DUP he once led had a choice between two options:

1. Scrapping the Northern Ireland Protocol and losing Stormont

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2. “Sucking up” the new Irish Sea border and then continuing to have the assembly.

Tantalisingly, Mr Robinson did not say what option he would himself pursue if he still led unionism.

His column, which got a big readership online and which dominated current affairs broadcasts, was wrongly interpreted by some people as him seeking Stormont’s fall.

Mr Robinson is too canny just to suggest (or, if he was still in politics, to pursue) such a radical course based on sudden impulse.

I can think of few people in the history of unionism who could have written with the authority the one-time MP for East Belfast did on Friday.

As he mentioned in a recent column, he has lived through 70+% of Northern Ireland’s existence (born in 1948, within weeks of Gerry Adams and Prince Charles).

Mr Robinson grew up in Castlereagh when the nearby shipyard was declining. He became an adult just as Ulster was sliding into conflict.

He became general secretary of the DUP when aged only 26 in 1975.

He got into Westminster as an MP in the 1979 election due to an almost fluke result, benefiting from a three-way split in the vote between the DUP, UUP and Alliance, allowing him to scrape through.

For decades he patiently worked his way to the top, and was always visible at Ian Paisley’s side. But he was not just a loyal lieutenant, but rather a formidable politician.

When I covered the annual releases of the cabinet papers from the 1970s and 80s, there were — in the government dispatches about him — flashes even then of his political pragmatism in a party that was seen to be extreme and utterly opposed to compromise.

On one of my first visits to the House of Commons as a teenager, around 1990, I remember being impressed to see him speak fluently in the chamber without notes.

Mr Robinson is often associated with his role in events such as the 1986 ‘invasion’ of Clontibret in Monaghan or his past tough rhetoric, such as calling some loyalist paramilitaries “counter terrorists”. Yet when in 2007 a hitherto implausible DUP/Sinn Fein coalition was established, it seemed to make sense that he had reached that point.

I recall a few times when, as a young reporter in the years running up to that deal, I had asked him questions and been struck by his strategic thinking in his answers.

One of those times was at the height of the 2002 interface trouble at Cluan Place, and he arrived to sign a statement of local political and church figures criticising republicans for an assault on the Protestant enclave. He was careful to point out that there were non IRA elements on the other side of the wall in the Short Strand (ie he was perhaps saying to others present that it was not just the Provos).

Another interview I recall was at a (council, I think) election count in 2005, when I asked what he thought the IRA would do on decommissioning, and he cautiously answered along the lines of saying what he thought someone might do if they were in the IRA’s position. And it was, sure enough, what the IRA did a few months later.

The point that I am making is that Mr Robinson is a shrewd tactician with a deep memory of loyalist and unionist successes and failures.

He saw up close the 1974 Ulster Worker’s Council Strike, the rise and fall of ‘rolling devolution’ at Stormont in the 1980s, and the Anglo Irish Agreement (he was involved in am 1987 Task Force that examined some of the failings of the unionist response to that deal).

He was on the losing side of the 1998 Belfast Agreement referendum and he then helped steer the DUP towards power sharing.

He has had three decades of service in the House of Commons, seeing how governments operate. He was not only first minister of Northern Ireland, he managed to survive a domestic crisis in late 2009 which had looked set to destroy his career, but instead saw him stay at the top of NI politics for six more years.

In light of that extraordinary breadth of unionist experience, it is striking that on Friday he did not dismiss out of hand the idea of collapsing Stormont. But he was saying that there are no good options.

He was also clearly implying that the DUP cannot ride two horses, of pretending to oppose the protocol while implementing it.

My own view is that bringing down devolution or, more accurately, creating a situation in which Stormont cannot operate, could result in this UK government, which is so weak towards the Irish, imposing joint stewardship of NI with Dublin (ie not quite joint authority but giving huge input to a nationalist partisan such as Simon Coveney).

Yet unionists are not entirely without power, as shown by the respectful way Alastair Campbell (quoted in a tweet at the top of the page) refers to Peter Robinson’s column.

It would also be embarrassing for Boris Johnson’s government to be exposed as so disloyal to unionists that it was prepared to punish them in a way it never dared when Sinn Fein collapsed Stormont.

The responses of Arlene Foster and Steve Aiken yesterday, seeming to rule out significant action, will just embolden London that it can further entrench the sea border.

It was intriguing to see last night therefore Richard Bullick, a one-time key advisor to Mr Robinson and a similarly strategic thinker, cite — in a non dismissive way — a tweet that raised the idea that DUP ministers might frustrate implementation of the protocol.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor, More columns by him below

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