Nobody other than those who have held the post will know the burden of holding together two coalitions – firstly their own party (because that is what most modern-day political parties are), and secondly a multi-party Executive (with very diverse outlooks) – while at the same time facing the daily challenges of governing in a divided community.
Everyone who has held the “top post” soon learned that the honeymoon is short and thereafter you get little thanks for the good you do; you become the target of criticism from those who hold unrealistic views about what can be achieved and how fast it can be delivered; you are the lightning rod for all that goes wrong, whether justified or not, and the prey for ambitious “colleagues” who either think that they deserve your job, or might get one from your replacement.
Perhaps before assessing what comes next, we might pause to thank Arlene for her service and many sacrifices. She will find out over the months to come, from regular decent people, that her contribution has been appreciated.
Arlene had the misfortune of being pitched into the storm of a global pandemic which absorbed virtually all of her time and had to be prioritised over the delivery of her domestic agenda. The pressure of this period is unparalleled and has been immense for all Ministers but especially for our First Minister.
Politics, like a river, does not cease to flow and the DUP will have to live and deal with the consequences of this decision. The procedures for electing a new leader re straight-forward and uncomplicated.
The MLAs and MPs will present a candidate to the Party’s Central Executive for ratification and, if approved, the new leader will take up office on an agreed date. The new leader will, at the appropriate time, directly propose the party’s nominee for First Minister or appoint a Nominating Officer in the Northern Ireland Assembly to do so.
The DUP is a democratic party in name and in practice so any member in good standing can offer themselves for the role. In truth the electoral college will look for a person with considerable experience of high-level politics who has leadership ability and has the capacity to lead and strengthen unionism while building up the party membership and its structures along with the party’s electoral support base. The wisest among the electoral college will also want to ensure that Arlene’s successor is someone who not only can unite the party but also can provide steady leadership to heal our troubled province.
In her resignation statement Arlene offered wise counsel to her successor in her hope to see someone who would follow the path of creating a shared society. Moreover, she has provided the space for the DUP to take a breath and consider not just who will lead them but where they want to be led.
I have been reluctant to engage in day-to-day political interactions, but I have no hesitation in advising what the order of business should be for party members, at every level, over the next few days and weeks.
This is an opportune time for a fresh leader to move forward with a refreshed plan. It should incorporate an examination of every aspect of functioning within the party organisation from its local structures to its central hub.
It means undertaking difficult conversations with representatives about what the party expects from them in relation to the level and standard of service they provide, to the order and discipline required to provide an effective political machine that can deliver on its commitments.
It must not mean ditching everything and everyone who has developed the party into the leading political force it has become.
It is an awesome responsibility not just for a new leader but for all those who will make the choice of leader and the party’s policy direction. Make a bad choice or take the wrong course and the Union will be in peril and you will not be forgiven.
In policy terms the means and strategy to secure and strengthen the Union must be agreed. How can we widen the net to attract others to grow the ranks of unionism?
How best do we speak to those who place a premium on bread-and- butter politics and have no recollection of the conflict which blighted my generation?
How can we, in a post Brexit era, deal with the need to safeguard our constitutional and economic wellbeing but at the same time deal with the conundrum created by having a land border with an EU member state?
Importantly, how best can we interact and work with those who do not share our world view on so many issues and who cannot even whisper the name of the country they jointly govern?
What can we do in a deeply divided society to bind our people together and what are the issues upon which common cause can be reached?
If the party can begin the task of plotting a course on these matters, the person who can best lead us to accomplish them will become much clearer. It will not be a mission for the faint-hearted.
– Peter Robinson first became an MP in 1979 (in East Belfast). He went on to lead the DUP – and NI – from 2008 until the end of 2015 / early 2016
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