Just over two years ago — in the summer of 2013, during the massive fallout between the DUP and Sinn Fein over the Maze ‘peace centre’ after Peter Robinson had bowed to widespread internal and external unionist criticism and killed off the project — I wrote a column in which I suggested that Robinson should give serious consideration to his legacy and exit strategy.
I wasn’t arguing that he was a bad leader, or even a leader who was about to be toppled: but I was saying that things were unlikely to get any easier in terms of the political hurdles he faced and that he, like Trimble before him, would become part of the problem.
But, just like Trimble, he hung on, convincing himself or allowing himself to be convinced that he had to remain at the helm.
The Haass and Hart Talks have come and gone since then. The Stormont House Agreement remains in limbo.
Most of the big decisions that were unresolved when he became First Minister remain unresolved. Crisis has followed crisis.
He was uncharacteristically wrong-footed by Mike Nesbitt when the UUP withdrew from the Executive and the DUP responded with choreographed nonsense. In recent interviews he has sounded tetchy and spooked and there are moments when you get the impression that even he doesn’t really believe what he’s saying.
The NAMA stuff is dogging his every footstep and creating the sort of perception that no party leader wants to deal with. The handover from Jimmy Spratt to Emma Pengelly in South Belfast has been a master class in mismanagement.
His immediate, ‘it’s back to business as usual’ response to the findings of the paramilitary assessment panel, took just about everyone by surprise and bewildered many DUP supporters.
Now he seems terribly cross with anyone who threatens to throw a spanner into the deal he is very obviously cooking up with Sinn Fein.
More worrying from his point of view is the fact that neither the British nor Irish governments seem that bothered about trying to help him. They left him to swing a few weeks ago when he had made it clear that he wanted suspension.
That’s because they have calculated that a deal is more important to Robinson than it is to Sinn Fein, not least because Robinson does not want to go to the DUP’s annual conference in a few weeks time and tell them that the institutions have collapsed.
He really doesn’t want to end his political/electoral career (and I’m pretty sure he’s not mad enough to believe that he should be a candidate in the Assembly election) with people asking; “What’s the difference between you and David Trimble?”
At this point he needs a deal. He needs a deal that can stand up to scrutiny as well as stand up to the refusal of the UUP to support it. He needs a deal which involves new cash, a resolution of the welfare impasse, something pretty substantial on legacy, movement on cross-community projects and hard evidence that the DUP and Sinn Fein will see it through up to and beyond the election.
He needs a deal that surprises people so much that they dare to believe, dare to hope that he’s got it right and put the entire political/institutional/peace process back on track.
Above and beyond all else, though, he needs a deal that allows him to step down and pass on the crown. Politics at his level and with the intensity he brings to it is grinding stuff: and his recent health scare will have reminded him of the price to be paid if you don’t take your foot off the accelerator.
He is one of the canniest political operators in UK politics and he will be well aware that enemies and successors are counting down the days. So he needs to ensure — even at this very late stage — that the leadership is taken by people who share his outlook and worldview.
So expect a behind-the-scenes deal involving the likes of Dodds and Foster rather than an actual contest. Unless, of course, someone from the more traditional grassroots decides to challenge and force a contest: although in my experience the DUP’s key figures tend to lack the courage required for that sort of challenge.
Sources close to Robinson still deny that he is under pressure, although it needs to be remembered that many of those sources have a vested interest in him hanging on for as long as is possible—or at least until they get their post-Robinson careers sorted out. Other sources, including increasing numbers of MLAs and councillors—who aren’t quite sure how the last few weeks have been playing with the electorate—are now willing to talk to journalists and confirm that they believe a change at the top is needed.
Robinson has been a key figure in the DUP since he became its first General Secretary in 1975. It was Robinson, rather than Paisley, who built and steered it through the long, lean electoral years and who pushed it across the line at critical moments.
Indeed, I’m not sure the DUP would have survived had he not been there. He’s one of only a handful of local politicians who would probably have had a major political career outside N.Ireland.
The DUP doesn’t have anyone else quite like Robinson. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, is something we will discover fairly soon.