What Robinson meant ... and what he didn’t talk about

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Only a fool – the sort of fool who knows as much about politics as I do about quantum mechanics – would believe that Peter Robinson didn’t have Arlene Foster in his sights on Thursday night.

And even if he persists with the nonsense that his comments weren’t directed at her, he’s still experienced enough to know – as are the people who helped him prepare the speech – that the comments were couched in such a way that the audience and media were going to wonder if he meant her.

Despite his denials, Peter Robinson's speech was directed at Arlene Foster's leadership

Despite his denials, Peter Robinson's speech was directed at Arlene Foster's leadership

I spoke to a number of people who heard him deliver the speech: they were in no doubt he was referring to her.

“After a short time in discussion with your opposite numbers you will have a reasonable picture of the parameters within which a deal may be achievable. If, even after extensive exploration of all the items on the agenda, and following discussions with your negotiating team as well as close confidants, you feel a deal cannot be consummated then, at best, it will be about jointly, with the other participants, creating a soft landing. However, you have just experienced the worst set of circumstances. A train crash – where the blame reached fever-pitch, angry words were exchanged, documents leaked, confidences broken and trust shattered.”

The sections of the speech about the qualities required of a leader were also aimed at her. Let’s face it, there’s no one in Sinn Fein’s leadership/negotiating teams who will be taking advice from him on anything.

But Foster needs to listen to him. He – far more than Paisley – was responsible for shifting the DUP from the fringes of power to the very centre of power. He knows what it took to bring the DUP’s representatives, officers, core vote and broader unionist electorate behind the 2007 deal with Sinn Fein. He knew the political risks and the personal risks involved. He knew when to stand aside as first minister in the interests of the party. When he set his mind to something he stood over it and sold it. Yet, like Paisley before him, his ‘retirement’ was more determined by others than himself.

That’s not to say that he was a great leader. He wasn’t. His approach of ‘solve or manage’ usually meant kicking the can down the road; and in his 10 years as first minister all of the ‘big ticket’ difficult issues remained unsolved.

While there may have been something resembling stability in the process when he and McGuinness were in charge, he still noted in the speech, “The arrangements, which were upgraded at St Andrews and beyond, provided a long period of stability but were still never truly infused with a sense of permanence”.

To be honest I’m not sure that it’s now possible to infuse that sense of permanence and I agree with his comment, “... I judge we are close to passing the point where endeavour and vision can provide the thrust to resolve our differences in this present generation.”

My take on the speech was that he was telling Foster to make sure that she doesn’t allow the point to be passed on her watch. He knows, as does she, that Sinn Fein aren’t budging until they get an Irish language act guaranteed. He knows, as does she, that the DUP and SF were talking about it. He knows, as does she, that she missed the chance of the ‘soft landing’ he mentioned. He knows, as does she, that no effort was made to sell an ILA to the party, even though the negotiating teams were discussing it. He knows, as does she, that the DUP will have to give ground on the issue. He knows, as does she, that the illusion of power and importance that accompanies the deal with the Conservatives is time-limited. He knows, as does she, that a ‘hard’ Brexit deal could destroy any chance of devolution for a generation – possibly even forever. He knows, as does she, that if this entire process comes down unionism will be in a dreadful hole.

To be honest I’m not entirely sure what to make of his stuff about border polls and “the need to agree a process for negotiations, timescales and not only the means of reaching agreement on all the particulars but also who would be involved in negotiating such an agreement”. The DUP leadership didn’t like it, either, which is why Foster gave the nod of approval for Jeffrey Donaldson and Sammy Wilson to rubbish it the following day.

Most of you will know that I’m not sanguine about the outcome of a border poll: I still believe the pro-Union argument would carry the day, but polls suggest it could be uncomfortably close. Unionists took comfort from a recent QUB poll which suggested just 21% support for Irish unity. What they didn’t seem to notice was that pro-Union support was only 50.3% (although I think Robinson noticed it – hence his reference to a 50 + 1 outcome in his speech). And a poll this week – from LucidTalk – had pro-Union support at 45%. Worth remembering, too, that those figures will change once we know the shape and nature of the Brexit deal. In other words, everything is in play.

So I think Robinson missed an opportunity to talk about how unionism expands its appeal and how – especially the DUP – it acknowledges and accommodates shifting societal attitudes on abortion, same-sex-marriage, secularism and ‘progressive’ thinking.

He knows, as does Foster, that these issues are not going away. Change is coming: and unionism must accept the reality of that change (even if it doesn’t like it) rather than stamp its feet and fight a battle it cannot and will not win.