Thirty-two years, one hundred miles and many twists, even U-turns and scandals separate Peter Robinson, former Northern Ireland First Minister and ex-DUP Leader, from events around the small Co. Monaghan village of Clontibret in August 1986 and his speaking engagement as an elder statesman in July 2018 in Glenties, Co. Donegal. In this period a lot has changed for Robinson and for Northern Ireland evidenced by his advice at the event in Glenties to his fellow unionists to prepare for a united Ireland.
On 7 August 1986 during the aftermath of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in November 1985, one hundred or so masked members of Ulster Resistance led by DUP deputy leader, Peter Robinson crossed the border by an unapproved road and traveled one mile into the Irish republic to the village of Clontibret where they vandalised property – including the local Church of Ireland. They marched up and down the street until the Garda arrived whereupon they left, after beating up two Garda officers. Peter Robinson stayed behind it is believed to get himself arrested.
Robinson pleaded guilty to offences against the state and was fined £17,000IR which was duly paid for him. Henceforward Robinson was known for many years as ‘Peter the Punt’. Many loyalists felt that Robinson should have refused to pay the fine to an enemy state and done his time like a good Ulsterman. He did refuse to eat An Garda Síochána‘s food preferring, he said, “wholesome Ulster food” supplied by his wife, the faithful Iris.
The event was organised by Paisley and Robinson to demonstrate poor border security. At the last minute Paisley jetted off to America to a funeral, leaving Robinson to lead the Clontibret assault, taking also the rap and the public ignominy.
At the time Robinson was an elected member of the British House of Commons for East Belfast, a hardline loyalist and Paisley’s right-hand man as deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. He helped mastermind the unionist campaign of opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement. A campaign that ultimately ended in yet more failure for the DUP.
Robinson, along with Paisley and their supporters, was implacably opposed to sharing power with anyone, not even the moderate Catholic SDLP led by John Hume, never mind Sinn Fein, then the political wing of the Provisional IRA. For this reason Robinson and Paisley led opposition to the deals being done during the 1990s with the Irish republican movement to bring about the ceasefires and to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. They led an unsuccessful campaign to ‘Smash Sinn Fein’ throughout the 1980s and 1990s, only to share government with them from 1999 to 2002 and to partner them in government for ten years from 2007.
In government with former IRA Chief of Staff, Martin McGuinness, Robinson could not entirely shake off his hardline past. He described homosexuality as an abomination in 2008 and in 2014 as First Minister he said he ‘wouldn’t trust Muslims’ – except ‘to go to the shops’ for him.
Robinson’s career has also seen his name repeatedly attached to many scandals with his wife and he being described as the“swish family Robinson“ in 2009 by the News of the World and Daily Mail after claims that they were receiving as public representatives £571,939.41 a year in various salaries and expenses, with a further £150,000 in salaries being paid to four of the couple’s family members.
‘People are always afraid of something new’
Yet today, having ‘retired’ as an elected representative and First Minister in 2015, Robinson has been reborn and rebranded as an elder statesman. Much to the annoyance of his DUP colleagues, he keeps making comment on local affairs. In 2018 in two major speeches one in Queens University and the other in Glenties at the MacGill Summer School he has extolled the virtues of political compromise, power-sharing and the north-south institutions: all the ‘enemies of Ulster’ that he and Ian Paisley fought vehemently against for thirty years. In this he appears to be trying on John Hume’s clothes.
In his time Robinson, like his partner and friend the late Martin McGuinness, has experienced many traumatic life changing events both personally and professionally during fifty years in Irish politics. Unlike many of his fellow unionists, he now appears to have allowed those events to shape him and change his outlook.
Professionally he has found himself as First Minister working closely and successfully with representatives of Irish republicanism – former IRA leaders in many cases – and the Irish government; people he previously loathed and vilified. It is clear from what he now says that he found he had much more in common with these groups than previously divided them.
Robinson has changed. The very fact that he feels at ease turning up to a venue in the Irish Republic to address a public meeting without the paramilitary escort he had in Clontibret in 1986 proves this. Perhaps he has changed much more than many of his party members would have liked. Perhaps they pray for the return of ‘Peter the Punt’? But such change is healthy and essential on all sides.
‘Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything’ George Bernard Shaw.
In his outing at Glenties (click here – comments @ 1.00hr in) Robinson went further than before. He said that while he still believed in the union with Britain, he implied that that account needs to be taken that the opinion of the younger generation was changing in Northern Ireland, that unionists would accept a vote in favour of a united Ireland and should plan for that possible scenario so that they were not caught without any strategy, like the British government with Brexit.
Robinson’s old mentor, Ian Paisley, said much the same way back in 1971:
‘If the people in the south really want the Protestants of the north to join them in a united Ireland, then they should scrap entirely the 1937 constitution and ensure that the Roman Catholic hierarchy could no longer exercise an improper influence in politics. If this were done, then the Protestant people would take a different view …”
In 1973 the Chair of the DUP and Paisley’s right-hand man, leading barrister, Dessie Boal, declared himself in favour of a federal Ireland along similar lines to the republican movement at that time. He remained DUP Chair in spite of this. In 1976 he secretly met the Provisional Republican movement for talks on the issue of a federal Ireland.
There is no doubt that Robinson feels liberated by his retirement. He looks at ease and a good deal healthier. Being the leader of the DUP cannot be easy. Whatever your personal opinions may come to be through the experiences you are exposed to, you cannot speak freely and must keep the faith in order to placate the nervous backwoodsmen and women.
Now Robinson can speak as the feels. He is obviously making efforts in his new lease of life to move unionist thinking in a way he could never have done as DUP leader.
However in trying to get unionism to plan for the future he has an uphill task.
Unionism has only once planned for the future in the last one hundred years. That was when they landed 24,000 German guns in 1914 with which to defy the British government on the Home Rule issue. In this they were very successful. But this success has never been repeated.
After achieving their goal of partition they sat on their laurels for fifty years. Even the Second World War didn’t wake them out of their stupor when they left their people horribly exposed to German air attack resulting in 1,000 people dying in one night of the Belfast Blitz.
In 1972, when the British Conservative government threw them out of office, their mass protests came to nothing.
As if the removal of their government was not a salutary lesson that should have provoked more planning for the future, unionists found themselves in the same position in 1985 with the imposition of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Again unionist mass protests achieved nothing and again nothing was learnt.
Likewise, the DUP’s own efforts to ‘Smash Sinn Fein’ and to derail the Good Friday Agreement came to nothing. In fact they had the opposite effect and today we have the DUP’s champion, Peter Robinson, extolling the virtues of many things he previously opposed.
Still, in spite of the many lessons of history and the advice of their champion, most unionists show no sign of change or of a desire to develop a strategy to navigate the future.
As before the signs are that the big decisions will most likely be taken for unionists.
Perhaps Robinson’s only hope – and Northern Ireland’s – is that he helps unionists limp into some form of a new Ireland in partnership with the people he has been able to work with.