Sam McBride: Though largely unknown outside Stormont, Richard Bullick was one of the DUP’s key assets

Richard Bullick, to Peter Robinsons left, at a meeting between Stormonts leaders and David Camerons government in 2014. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Richard Bullick, to Peter Robinsons left, at a meeting between Stormonts leaders and David Camerons government in 2014. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Despite being one of the most powerful people in Stormont for more than a decade, Richard Bullick would not be recognised in the street by many people.

But his departure from his role at the heart of the DUP is as significant as the moment when Alastair Campbell left Tony Blair’s side.

Mr Bullick was always a few steps behind the first minister at Downing Street, a few seats down from his boss at ministerial summits and in the shadows when the spotlight was on Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson or Arlene Foster.

For almost 20 years he has been the intellect behind the transformation of the DUP from Dr Paisley’s ‘Never, never, never’ party of protest to the pragmatic party which has become the Province’s dominant political force for more than a decade.

Due to the centralised way in which the DUP is organised and the level of his authority, Mr Bullick exercised more influence over party strategy and decisions than most of the party’s MLAs put together.

A former member of the Conservatives, he was promoted by Mr Robinson because of his talent and the pair forged a formidable alliance of strategic thinkers.

Among a cadre of bright young backroom workers – some of whom have since become MLAs – he was the senior figure, gradually shaping the New DUP.

He was, in the words of one DUP member, “uber liberal for the DUP” and as such his departure will raise questions about where the party will go from here.

The arch-pragmatist within the DUP and someone regarded as honourable in negotiations, some in Sinn Fein will recognise that they have lost a potential partner when it comes to striking the sort of deals crucial to sustain power-sharing government.

But other republicans will likely be delighted to see that their decision to collapse devolution has played a role – due to the fact that special advisors to ministers have been out of work for almost four months and are in some cases now looking for alternative employment – in removing from the DUP one of its greatest assets.

In immediate practical terms, the DUP now has a vacant chair when the inter-party talks – where Mr Bullick had accompanied Arlene Foster in many of the key sessions – resume after the election.

His departure is likely to strengthen the hand of Timothy Johnston, who was the only other backroom figure with anything like the same influence and who is also deeply pragmatic.

But, unlike the genteel Mr Bullick, Mr Johnston’s role as an internal enforcer means that he is less popular across the party’s elected representatives and he recently faced an aborted attempt by some senior figures to have him removed.

More significantly, some DUP members who have worked closely with both men suggest that Mr Johnston’s background as a PR man may mean that the party’s focus now becomes more short term rather than strategic.