It’s been a rough week for Peter Robinson. No party leader wants to begin the summer recess with a round of interviews in which he has to defend or explain his personal role in a headline-dominating story that has the words ‘scandal’ or ‘cover-up’ attached to it.
He looked and sounded tired. And that’s not surprising, because he’s aware the issue isn’t going to go away anytime soon.
There are still a lot of questions to be answered and he knows that a couple of interviews on a Friday afternoon won’t kill the story or change the existing perception.
The other story that isn’t going to go away is the ongoing stalemate over welfare reform. Robinson confirmed on Friday that the Treasury has given the Executive a formal warning that it is getting ready to take control of its finances if the budget crisis is not resolved. Greg Hands, the chief secretary to the Treasury, has written to Finance Minster Arlene Foster, making it clear what will happen if the budget stalemate continues.
Robinson’s own view is that “the lifetime of the Assembly is limited if Sinn Fein and the SDLP don’t take responsibility” for their actions.
But Sinn Fein says it is not for shifting. Indeed, its position seems to have hardened since George Osborne’s budget was outlined last Wednesday.
Martin McGuinness has ruled out powers being handed back to Westminster and ‘Tory austerity’ cuts being administered by either Osborne or Theresa Villiers. Meanwhile, nobody actually cares what the SDLP thinks because, under Alasdair McDonnell’s leadership, the party has all the coherence of candy floss.
Yet the fact remains that if the Treasury is serious about intervening if it has to, then it won’t be long until an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.
The other problem for Robinson is that his long-term political strategy is crumbling around his ears. Last September he confirmed what some of us have been saying for years, namely, that the political institutions are not fit for purpose. Ten months later and they are more rotten than ever.
Nothing has been done to reform them, let alone strengthen them. I warned last year that linking reform to other aspects of the pre-Christmas negotiations would be “pretty stupid” because if one part of the deal fell then reform – which should always have been a stand alone negotiation – would fall with it.
Back in 2007 Robinson promoted the DUP/Sinn Fein deal as bringing hope, accountability and stability to Northern Ireland. He mocked the UUP. He mocked the media.
He insisted that the DUP had “delivered what the rollover unionism of David Trimble had failed to deliver”. He claimed to have strengthened the institutions and ensured that the previous process of start-stop-start-stop devolution had been ended.
And this was Robinson’s deal. It may have needed Ian Paisley’s imprimatur to get it across the line, but it was Robinson and his personal coterie of advisers and strategists who negotiated and put the deal in place. It was a strategy designed to take him out of Paisley’s shadow and into the First Minister’s office: a strategy to secure his legacy and have him spoken of in the same breath as Carson and Craigavon.
There was always a ‘Hail Mary pass’ (a very long forward pass in American football, made in desperation and with only a small chance of success) dimension to the strategy, yet Robinson calculated, as Trimble had done before him, that it was the best way of keeping the game alive. And he was probably right, given the circumstances at the time.
Yet – and again like Trimble before him – he was never able to get the measure of Sinn Fein. The fate of the Assembly is in Sinn Fein’s hands. His own fate, as First Minister, is also in their hands. It’s a bizarre, almost surreal situation.
The UUP and Sinn Fein weren’t able to cut a lasting deal. The DUP and Sinn Fein haven’t been able to do it, either. So what does that tell us about the future of the political process?
Well, the first thing it tells us is that if Sinn Fein and the DUP are serious about saving the process and the institutions then they shouldn’t be taking a summer holiday.
They should spend the next few weeks having below-the-radar negotiations – away from the glare of the media – and see if it is, in fact, possible to agree on a rescue package.
The second thing it tells us is that we need an intervention from the two governments as well. They need to make it unambiguously clear that the Assembly won’t be allowed to continue its heavily subsidised drift from crisis to crisis followed by a pointless election.
Cameron and Kenny need to make it known that the Assembly is not ‘too important’ to fail: that they will close it and stop all salaries, expenses and office costs if inter-party agreement is not possible.
I wrote last week that my instinct is to close the place – now. But if it is to be given a final chance to redeem itself then Theresa Villiers needs to instruct the parties not to waste the summer relaxing and briefing against each other. They need to keep talking until September and if Treasury intervention is still required at that point then it should be accompanied by the locking of doors and removal of passes and titles.