Peter Robinson admits: Yes, we pressured Paisley to go, but Arlene Foster’s savage slaying is an act of self-harm by Edwin Poots
More than 13 years after the late Ian Paisley was pressured to resign as first minister, Peter Robinson has revealed part of the role which he and other senior DUP figures played in that process.
In an extended column for Friday’s News Letter (see link below), Mr Robinson confirms elements of what this newspaper reported at the time about the removal of the party’s founder – but which at that point the DUP denied.
The former DUP leader reveals for the first time that he and Nigel Dodds shredded a petition which contained the names of DUP MLAs calling on Dr Paisley to set a date for his exit.
Mr Robinson contrasted how Dr Paisley was removed “sensitively” to the “needlessly nasty” nature of Mrs Foster’s toppling and urged new DUP leader Edwin Poots to accept that had been a mistake.
Amid unparalleled acrimony within the DUP, Mr Robinson warned that “recent events have left people across Northern Ireland asking hard questions about whether the DUP is still capable of leading unionism”.
He said that new DUP leader Edwin Poots has undermined himself by his actions – but also said that DUP members attacking the new leader were similarly acting in a self-defeating manner because if that continues it “will ensure there is no functioning party left for a new leader to lead”.
Last week Dr Paisley’s son, North Antrim MP Ian Paisley Jr, said that his father’s removal had “killed” him.
Mr Robinson disputed that characterisation, saying that for months he had been urged by colleagues to ask Dr Paisley to retire but that he “was able to stand down with his dignity intact” and that “it only became public knowledge years later when he chose to give an account of that episode to the media”.
He went on: “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.”
He added: “Compare the party’s action then with the deliberate publicly humiliating and acrimonious ditching of Arlene....the savage slaying of a leader in the public eye was totally unnecessary and vindictive. Moreover, it was counterproductive.”
Mr Robinson said that the manner of Mrs Foster’s removal “has caused serious damage to the party, and equally inflicted self-harm upon her successor...more and more it is being said that for some in his camp it is all about revenge as they could have achieved the same outcome without spilling blood.”
Mr Robinson confirmed that in 2008 DUP MLAs “signed a petition to confirm their position” on Dr Paisley’s retirement.
However, he said that in the meeting with Dr Paisley he “did not want to be cruel and hand over a petition which would have amounted to a notice to quit” and so he suggested that the leader “should take his own soundings”.
Mr Robinson said that “no party member ever leaked the existence of the petition seeking his retirement – indeed Nigel [Dodds] and I shredded it so that nobody would later find out”. However, 13 years ago the News Letter’s then political editor, Stephen Dempster, reported on the existence of that document.
In a front page article on March 6, 2008 – two days after Dr Paisley announced he would be retiring – this newspaper reported that Mr Robinson had strongly denied claims that pressure was applied to the first minister to stand down.
This newspaper reported that reliable sources had revealed that DUP MLAs had signed a petition which called for Dr Paisley to reveal a date on which he would go but that “the paper was never presented to him, because he decided himself that he would go”.
At the time, Mr Robinson said: “Such a document does not exist”.
• Peter Robinson: Contrast dignified exit of Ian with humiliation of Arlene
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