Former DUP leader and Northern Ireland First Minister, Peter Robinson’s much reported speech at Queens University Belfast last week was notable for what he didn’t say:
- He didn’t discuss why the union was worth holding on to and by default why a united Ireland was such a bad idea, at a time when so many throughout these islands and beyond are asking these questions like never before;
- He talked much about how to maintain the devolved government structures in Northern Ireland as if he had always been a strong advocate of compromise and power-sharing with Irish republicanism. He presented himself as first and foremost a negotiator and a process manager, not a conviction politician. He made no reference to his earlier long career in conviction politics and his strong opposition to compromise and power-sharing.
It’s almost as if this was a job interview and the candidate was anxious to present himself as an all round good guy with no skeletons. So what job is he after?
The media, as ever, failed to challenge Robinson’s ridiculous Clintonesque posing and failed to point out to him his omissions and extreme contradictions. Instead they conspired with him to paint a picture of an elder statesman, allowing him to re-write his political career and his part in the history of this place.
It is a hallmark of modern mainstream politics, and the reporting of it, that the status quo must always be maintained, that to challenge the way things are in any radical sense is the mark of an ‘extremist’. Robinson used to be an outsider, in the vanguard of that challenge to the status quo here, along with his mentor Ian Paisley. Now he is very much a part of the established order. Too late we discovered that all these so-called ‘radicals’ really wanted was to be admitted to the elite club and placed in positions of power. Once there, they showed what loyal (if incompetent) servants of the system they could be – just like the Big House unionists they used to condemn for being soft on nationalism and who the DUP ultimately destroyed.
In his speech, like so many of his contemporaries, not just in the UK and Ireland, but around the world, Robinson smugly talked at length about how the present circumstances could be managed and how he could do it so much better. He casts himself as an adept political manager and supreme negotiator now, not a change agent and certainly not a militant with a red beret challenging the establishment and regularly mired in scandal.
If he is a manager then his performance and that of his organisation must be measured and his legacy assessed.
What have the DUP done for us?
So what have Robinson and the DUP done for us? More to the point, what have they done for the constituency they claim to defend – northern unionists/ Protestants?
Ironically, simultaneous to the DUP’s rise to prominence has been the decline in the unionist vote to a point where unionists don’t hold a majority in either Belfast City Council or in the holy of holies, Stormont. In local council elections the unionist share of the vote has reduced to 39%.
Crucially the Protestant population in Northern Ireland has been in steady decline ever since the DUP came to prominence.
In 1971, with the old Stormont regime still in power, the Protestant population was around 888,000 or 58% of the total population. In 2011, when Peter Robinson was at the height of his powers as First Minister, the Protestant or unionist population had sharply declined to 752,000, a decline of 15% or by 30% in real terms as the overall Northern Ireland population had risen by 19%.
In addition, the unionist share of the vote declined from 63% in 1973 to 49% in the 2017 General election (when the DUP claimed their biggest vote). Furthermore 50,000 fewer unionist votes were cast in 2017 compared to 1973 – in spite of a greatly increased electorate. In this time the nationalist vote had almost doubled from just 24% in 1973 to 41% in 2017.
During the DUP’s rise to prominence Ulster unionists have also seen numerous setbacks and a catalogue of disasters:
- The removal of the old unionist regime in 1972 by their supposed allies, the British Conservatives. This old bastion of unionism was weakened by ongoing civil unrest emanating from not only Irish nationalism, but also from Ulster loyalism led by Ian Paisley.
- Ongoing secret talks between the British government and the Provisional IRA throughout the twenty-five years of the ‘Troubles’.
- The Sunningdale Agreement with a Council of Ireland in 1974 was seen by many unionists at the time as a stepping stone to a United Ireland and was removed by the UWC Strike, during which the British PM, Harold Wilson, appeared to call unionists ‘spongers’.
- A split in the unionist vote was engineered directly by the DUP from the early seventies onwards.
- The imposition of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 which unionists were unable to derail.
- The implementation of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 in the face of DUP opposition.
- The DUP’s failure to ‘Smash Sinn Fein’.
- The DUP’s failure to destroy the Good Friday Agreement and keep Sinn Fein out of government.
- Ex-IRA leaders were elevated to sit in the government of the former unionist state and incredibly became equal partners with the DUP under the St. Andrews Agreement in 2007.
- The DUP’s partnership in government with Sinn Fein was achieved at the expense of fellow unionists, the once monolithic Ulster Unionist Party, who the DUP had successfully marginalised to a mere rump by 2017.
- Ian Paisley was seen sharing government offices with the arch-enemy of unionism and former IRA Chief of Staff, Martin McGuinness
- More than that, Ian Paisley and also his successor, Peter Robinson, went on to establish a close friendship with Martin McGuinness.
- Northern Ireland voted strongly to remain in the EU in 2016 against the DUP’s advice and contrary to the overall UK vote, producing a clear threat to the union.
- The collapse of devolved government in 2017 – caused by the DUP’s handling of the RHI scheme – lost Stormont to unionism.
- The collapse of talks to revive devolved government in 2018 and the continuation of an indefinite political impasse with no government – devolved or direct – for eighteen months, was described by Robinson himself as a ‘train crash’, implying criticism of Arlene Foster’s handling of the negotiations.
- Today it’s not surprising that Northern Ireland has the lowest level of household income in the UK, the highest level of male suicide*, the highest level of fuel poverty, the highest level of young male unemployment, the lowest level of business start-up, the highest level of academic under-achievement – most of it among working class Protestants.
- In the latest opinion poll 42% in Northern Ireland say they would vote for a united Ireland, while 62% have little confidence in Westminster politicians and only 47% regard themselves as strongly British.
- In spite of the long term decline in the Protestant population, the DUP have continuously alienated potential Catholic support and thereby boosted nationalist support.
(* Note: More people have died from suicide in Northern Ireland since 1998 than died in the twenty-five years of the ‘Troubles’.)
Does any of this suggest success for the DUP and it’s key strategist throughout, Peter Robinson?
Have they achieved a secure and dominant position for their constituency under their stewardship?
Surely a key measure is that the DUP’s constituency – northern Protestants – have voted with their feet throughout the last fifty years of the DUP’s existence and a large number have left Northern Ireland? A trend the DUP have done nothing to address.
Unsurprisingly, none of this was dealt with by Robinson in his speech at Queens nor did the media confront the ‘actor manager’ with this record of ‘poor managerial performance’, not to say disaster. Then there is the more distant history of such characters as ‘Peter of Clontibret‘ or ‘Peter of the Red Beret ‘.
Yet everyone must be allowed to change.
However, in more recent years Robinson has appeared unable or unwilling to shake off his past. While in office he has spent much time mired in scandal. We have had ‘Peter the abominator of gays‘ or ‘Peter who sends Muslims to shops for him‘. Then there was Red Sky and NAMA, not to mention RHI. Yet today’s Peter is allowed to strut the stage in the august halls of Queens University as if he was some kind of visiting global statesman with many good works to his name and not a blemish on his character.
Unionists might have received some solace if, instead of talking about what a great and clever fellow he is, Robinson made an inspiring speech setting out a strong case for a continuation of the union that could have helped rally hard-pressed unionism. But there wasn’t a word. Like so many unionist leaders and pundits down through the years, Robinson showed he was incapable of justifying the union and instead relied on the innate conservatism of his followers and on a blind belief that the union will endure for all eternity in spite of clear evidence to the contrary; all the while preening himself in the public eye and collecting his generous pension and fees.
What’s he up to?
What exactly is behind all this posturing by Robinson in his ‘retirement’ is difficult to assess.
Is Robinson having a makeover before returning to the fray in some capacity either as DUP Leader once more or in a different capacity rebranded as a peace-maker and frontman in a new constitutional settlement or is he just totally pissed-off with the mess his successor is making and wants to engineer her downfall and replacement or is it simply a case of him trying to re-write the history books about what a great fellow he was to avoid the label, Leader of ‘Disaster Unionism’ being attached to him.
Have the British so little faith in the ability of the current DUP leadership that they have lent on Robinson to get reinvolved in order to put the pieces back together post-Brexit?
On the other hand Robinson may have realised too late what’s at stake for unionism; that the structures of the Good Friday Agreement offered unionism the last chance of an agreed settlement within the union. Unless these structures can be restored, unionism as a political ideology faces a bleak future of increasing marginalisation within the UK and within Ireland.
Hopefully the truth will out.