Peter Robinson: Contrast the dignified exit of Ian Paisley as DUP leader with the humiliation of Arlene Foster

Sadly, they have missed the point.

Friday, 4th June 2021, 7:00 am
Updated Friday, 4th June 2021, 7:07 am
Peter Robinson, the former DUP leader and first minister of Northern Ireland, now writes a column for the News Letter every other Friday. His next column after this week will appear on Friday June 18

I have heard much in the wake of the DUP’s leadership contest from Edwin’s supporters that such contests, by their nature, are brutal.

We even watched the North Antrim MP tell reporters that it “killed” his father.

I do not doubt that the events of that year hurt Ian deeply and knowing how often he told us that the church was his first love I am certain that the very public removal of his father from the leadership of the church had a greater impact than his retirement from politics.

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Happier day at the top of the DUP. The then party leader and first minister designate Dr Ian Paisley in April 2007 with key colleagues, from left, Nigel Dodds, Peter Robinson, Arlene Foster, Edwin Poots and Ian Paisley Junior. In little more than a year he would come under pressure to stand down

After all the party had dealt with the changeover without negative public commentary and Ian was able to stand down with his dignity intact.

It only became public knowledge years later when he chose to give an account of that episode to the media.

There are similarities between the two events but none in the way they were accomplished.

Back then senior members of the party were invited to attend a meeting of DUP Assembly colleagues and when I entered, I immediately noticed that almost all of our group was in the room.

I was told that for his own sake and legacy, and in the interests of the party, Ian needed to retire.

Members outlined their reasons – which in kindness I would prefer not to list — and asked if I would speak to him.

For months leading up to this meeting I had resisted requests from individuals and small groups of members who wanted me to ask him to go.

It is one of my greatest disappointments that Ian did not reach the pinnacle of his political career earlier in his life when he was as sharp as a tack and bright as a button rather than in his eighties after a serious health problem.

At the meeting there was recognition of the massive service he had given to the party and country and the many sacrifices he and his family had made.

It was agreed that everything should be done to make the process as painless as possible.

Though we knew that often the messengers are the ones who get shot the party’s chairman and secretary agreed to accompany me, and the members signed a petition to confirm their position.

My colleagues and I handled our meeting with Ian respectfully and sensitivily though I recognise there is no pleasurable way to perform such a role.

We informed Ian because of his central and significant status in the party that members were keen that we should work on plans for a transition rather than having to deal with the issue unprepared.

At first, he did not accept that members wanted to prepare for change, but I did not want to be cruel and hand over a petition which would have amounted to a Notice to Quit.

I judged that it would be less hurtful if he was to make the assessment and decision himself without any demand being handed over, so I suggested that he should take his own soundings and perhaps he could ask his son or one of his advisors to speak to Assembly members and report to him. He asked one of his advisors to do so.

A few days later he asked to meet with us and said he wished to remain in office until after a planned international investment conference had taken place which was some months away.

We replied that we were sure the party would be willing to work around his chosen date.

Within days Ian spoke to the media about his intention to retire and no party member ever leaked the existence of the petition seeking his retirement – indeed Nigel and I shredded it so that nobody would later find out.

That’s the point. Ian made his own announcement in March 2008.

We held a farewell event and there was no humiliation or embarrassment and no rancour – at least until 2014, for reasons I can only guess at, Ian decided that he wished to publicise a version of what had occurred.

Compare the party’s action then with the deliberate publicly humiliating and acrimonious ditching of Arlene. It is not the changing of party leader that has caused so much bitterness, it is the manner and handling of the change.

Arlene would have moved on if someone had gone quietly to her and explained that her colleagues wanted to make a change.

That’s why she said recently “there was another way to do it”.

Politics is a rough trade and of course it must hurt, if a political career is ended before the participant’s preferred time, but the savage slaying of a leader in the public eye was totally unnecessary and vindictive.

Moreover, it was counterproductive. It has caused serious damage to the party, and equally inflicted self-harm upon her successor.

One has to wonder what kind of strategy those advising Edwin are following when they took – and continue to take — decisions which can only damage his prospects of moving the party forward.

More and more it is being said that for some in Edwin’s camp it is all about revenge as they could have achieved the same outcome without spilling blood.

Several thousand years ago the Chinese philosopher, Confucius, wrote, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” 

Given the repercussions from his modus operandi that is a lesson Edwin must already be learning. But here’s the rub.

If Confucius is right, he is right in both directions. There can be no lasting advantage to those who are unhappy with Edwin’s take-over – other than the short-term satisfaction gained – from seeking revenge or using their recently learnt-experience to destabilise the new regime or waiting for the opportunity to launch a countercoup.

That will destroy the party just as surely as it will damage the prospects of those who engage in such an operation. Recent events have left people across NI asking questions about whether the DUP is still capable of leading unionism.

Our faithful members and supporters want cool and steady heads at this time, and they deserve to experience in our temperament and actions the better angels of our nature.

If those at the forefront of both camps are not pursuing a scorched earth strategy then it is in nobody’s interest to continue in conflict.

Those of us who have been marinated in DUP politics want to see the party prosper. Those who supported Edwin believe he can achieve that goal if he is allowed to function unheeded. Surely, if he has a platform that can advance the Union and move Northern Ireland towards a more shared society, he deserves that chance.

If he succeeds is that not in the best interests of party and country? If he fails, then the baton will pass to the next leader. But continued friction will not only guarantee he fails but also ensure there is no functioning party left for a new leader to lead – a house divided against itself, cannot stand.

I am not asking sceptics to doff their caps or become his cheerleaders, the next moves belong to Edwin.

He will lose nothing and probably gain a lot if he were to acknowledge that the process of removing Arlene was needlessly nasty.

He needs to reach out, in a meaningful way to those who did not support him and even more important is the practical and pragmatic imperative —he needs to steer a course that is capable of encouraging support to strengthen our place within the UK and recognise we live in a divided society which needs to have leadership that understands and embraces difference.

The harsh truth is that if he is unwilling to provide that leadership many, within the party and outside, who have given their support in the past will consider other vehicles to achieve these objectives.

Until that assessment can be made (if I may mangle the words of John Lennon) all I am saying is give Poots a chance.

Peter Robinson is a former DUP leader and first minister. His next column will appear on June 18

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