Robinson is a hard act to follow, but for now his exit should help the DUP

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I have lived in the DUP from the day of its birth,” Peter Robinson told the party’s conference on Saturday. That first day was September 4, 1971, when Ian Paisley and a handful of others emerged from Belfast’s Grand Central Hotel and announced their new party.

Robinson continued: “I recall the endless hours shaping its structures and message. I remember my nomadic existence in the party’s early years as I travelled the highways and byways to build up its branches and membership. I still have memories of manoeuvring up narrow and dark laneways to the most remote and unlikely of meeting places in which any political party has ever gathered.

“When it all began for me several political lifetimes ago the DUP was but an irritant to the political establishment and now we are the largest party of government in Northern Ireland.”

Robinson’s departure marks the end of an era for the DUP. Ian Paisley was leader from September 1971 until 2008. Robinson was deputy leader from 1980 until 2008 (although he did resign for a few months in 1987, in response to Ian Paisley and UUP leader James Molyneaux rejecting the contents of a Unionist Task Force report he had co-authored with Frank Miller and Harold McCusker) and then leader – a post he will relinquish in the next few weeks.

From the DUP’s perspective he will be a very hard act to follow. As I have written before the party is more his creation than Paisley’s. He built it and shaped it. He steered Paisley at key moments. He kept the DUP in the Assembly after 1998 and ensured that it produced a credible political/electoral alternative rather than just whinged from the sidelines. He pushed for and directed what became the DUP/Sinn Fein deal of May 2007 and eased Paisley over the line and into the First Minister’s office. He endured the brickbats from internal and external critics and produced strategy after strategy after 2007 to ensure that the structures didn’t collapse.

It all goes back to that Task Force report of June 1987. Entitled An End To Drift, it had been commissioned by Paisley and Molyneaux to offer alternatives to the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Here’s a crucially important extract: “Our original brief identified two major areas for investigation and we received substantial opinion about both. However, it is certainly the case that the burden of our discussions focused on the search for an alternative to the Agreement. We make this observation at the outset to register the depth of anxiety which exists within the unionist community, and the determination of most of those we met that protest can be no substitute for politics. That in itself is a major finding of our report!”

The three sharpest brains in the UUP and DUP knew, even then, that unionism had to get serious about negotiation and uncomfortable conversations. It had to ensure that unionism learned to make its own case and never again find itself on what Robinson referred to as “the window ledge of the Union.”

And I think it was probably at that moment, too, that Robinson realised that the DUP had to move beyond being merely the protest fringe of unionism – the poor electoral relation of the UUP – and become the party of ideas and long-term strategy. One thing is clear, though, the DUP from 1988 onwards was almost like a party reborn; a party that finally knew what its real purpose was. That was all Robinson’s doing.

Paisley may have been the ‘brand’ name, but Robinson was the managing director/CEO/communications chief/chairman of the board rolled into one. There was no aspect of the DUP he didn’t control. It helped that he loved the number crunching and understood the value of detailed planning and the virtue of patience. He knew there would be setbacks, but he was prepared for them and capable of drawing the correct lessons. And he was helped immeasurably by the reality that the UUP didn’t have their own Robinson. Yes, they had good people, but they didn’t have that key figure who held all of the strings and understood the nuances and shifting patterns of the entire game plan. It’s no wonder that Enoch Powell once described Robinson as possessing “one of the keenest strategic minds in British politics”.

So, how will the DUP survive without the man who has been at their very core since September 1971? The DUP remains strong. It may have had a rough few months, but only an idiot would believe that Robinson’s departure will lead to implosion. The overwhelming majority of their MLAs can be confident about re-election next May, so won’t be rocking any boats. There may be internal tensions about the IRA and Army Council, but the party remains united around the view, “better us in there than the UUP or TUV”. The passing on of the reins of power to Dodds and Foster keeps the old and new wings of the DUP under the one roof. There is no one with a strong enough base in the party to challenge Robinson’s succession plan or ongoing long-term policy.

The key thing about his departure now is that it removes the possibility of a “Peter problem” for the electorate: the sort of problem the UUP had with David Trimble from 2001-05. Ironically, the stepping aside of their dominant figure may – as it did when Paisley left in 2008 – actually help the DUP at the next election. And such an outcome would, I think, please him very much.