Wednesday, 6 January 2010

The First Minister's excuses are unconvincing.

My latest contribution to the Belfast Telegraph comment pages argues that Peter Robinson's failure to respond quickly to Cardinal Daly's passing was an error of judgement indicative of a larger problem. The two First Ministers are failing to provide the leadership which Northern Ireland needs.

Cardinal Daly's passing should have marked a period of loss and reflection across the community. It's a pity that the First Minister Peter Robinson, rather than setting the appropriate tone, took two-and-a-half days to respond to the churchman's death.

When Mr Robinson finally released a statement it struck a petulant note, hitting out at the media before touching fleetingly upon the life and works of the cardinal.

Doubtless Mr Robinson had had a stressful week. His party remains engaged in an endless wrangle with Sinn Féin over the devolution of policing and justice powers, the Executive is still on shaky ground and his wife Iris was forced to retire from politics after a struggle with ill-health and depression.

The DUP leader chose to cite these personal circumstances to explain the absence of an early response to the Daly family's bereavement. Yet, in an age in which communication is both swift and instant, it is difficult to believe that Mr Robinson or his staff could not at least have found time to issue a Press release in his name.


The episode provides a further hint that the relationship between Peter Robinson and the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has deteriorated sharply.

When the pair came together to condemn the murders of Sappers Azimkar and Quinsey and Constable Carroll we were told that Northern Ireland had witnessed a defining moment. There is little of that sense of common purpose evident within OFMDFM now.

The common perception is that Robinson and McGuinness have neither the will nor the ability to set an example for a shared society. The First Ministers' office reflects an Executive and a system of government too riven by internal divisions to respond coherently to the public mood.

Robinson frequently reacts angrily when he feels the press has misinterpreted his actions. But he cannot escape culpability for the DUP's mixed messages.

The First Minister claims he was "out of circulation" over the weekend. He fulminates against "elements in the Press" who have mischievously interpreted his silence as a snub to Cardinal Daly and the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland.

Mr Robinson might genuinely believe that he is being treated unfairly, but he has become ensnared in a trap of his own making.

Under his leadership the DUP has attempted to portray its relationship with Sinn Fein both as a truculent and hostile stand-off and a successful, mutual partnership. He has attempted to win back hardliners, arguing that power-sharing is effectively a one-way street, while remaining the figurehead of a purported cross-community coalition.

It is not the media's fault if the First Minister and his party occasionally creak under the weight of their own internal contradictions.

The DUP's bona fides cannot be imputed. By 'fluffing his lines' after Cardinal Daly's death Peter Robinson has missed another opportunity to display the good grace, dignity and respect which he and his party are often accused of lacking.


Sam Semple said...

Good article Chekhov.

The DUP need to be relentlessly exposed as the bigots they are.

UCUNF should show the confidence and belief to do this.

The DUP don't, and never have, represented mainstream unionist thinking. They merely had a temporary period of benefiting from GFA dissaffection.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps more convincing after tonights bombshell, Chekov.

Chekov said...


yourcousin said...

Not sure of this is the right post to comment on but I felt it semi-relevant to this particular grouping of posts.

The idea that all that the NI was just waiting for "normal" politics to arrive ala Cameron is a shallow reading of history and politics in NI (and I think you know that). There's never been the traditional left/right spectrum in Ireland as a whole and certainly not within NI. Can you seriously point out any point in the existence of NI in which there was a Labor/Tory swing?

That you post up an old picture of Robinson ala an AK (albeit a replica, if my memory serves) is telling being that both Trimble and Empey were members of Vanguard which was vhemently opposed to even modest reforms which would have brought NI into line with the rest of the United Kingdom. I'm not saying that those two still hold those views, but if we're digging up bones...

For me one of the most frustrating things I see here (and I read almost daily) is the disconnect between where you would like to see the UUP go, which I support, and where it has been. I remember the exhange we had over Trimble's "victory jig" where it took five posts to get you to acknowledge that it had even taken place and was not a myth when what you meant to say (or at least admitted to in the last post) was that the "victory jig" had taken place on a different street and that my point while technically incorrect was substantively accurate. That in my mind was what "was regrettable".

How can you expect Adams to own up and renounce his past (which if he did so would negate his entire belief system BTW) while at the same time never square up the fact that the UUP for multiple decades put Ulster first above the rest of Britain in terms of policies and beliefs? I think it's a positive development to call out little Ulster politics, but just as Gerry and co. can't scold dissidents without facing their own past nor the can the UUP credibly embark on their New Force path without acknowledging that say Empey challenged the AIA in court thereby challenging the sovereignty of Westminister. An action I might add that aided (at least IMHO) his leadership bid, just as the "victory jig" cemented Trimbles accession to the UUP leadership.

I remember the election of 2005 and followed closely as Trimble put out fliers soliciting votes from the Portugese community while campaigning in his broken down, smoke belching, red double decker bus. It wasn't a campaign that was even Faulkneresque in terms of presenting Ulster at a crossroads and arguing for a more pluralistic society (again which Trimble and Empey opposed at the time).

I see a poster here belittling the DUP victory over the UUP as "dissaffection". I think it is telling that significant sections of the electorate are not willing to make peace with SF (however reformed). I know it doesn't count for much but I believe that the DUP accession to unionist supremacy tapped into that very same element which Empey and Trimble tapped into as youngsters in the Vanguard and cited as reasons why they could lead the UUP, by appealing to this very same base, which is obviously anithetical to the New Force vision of pluralism within a UK wide context.

Perhaps what is most confusing is that the New Force departure is presented as a willfull departure and a prinicpled choice rather that a lash up of a party looking for power and desperate and a dying party looking for a life line. Now I'm pretty sure we'll disagree on that last sentance, but I have hard time seeing it any other way.

Hope your enjoying your new year.

yourcousin said...

damn it, of course should read, "hope you're enjoying your new year

yourcousin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
yourcousin said...

Not that it matters at this point except for posterity sake but I was just thinking about it (why I was thinking about this subject at 4:45am is beyond even me) and of course I was wrong in my previous post. It was Michael McGimpsey who challenged the AIA in court, not Reg Empey. So Reg should not be tarred with that brush, though his membership in Vanguard still stands as does his membership in the Loyal Orders.

Chekov said...


I can’t agree. Actually I see Northern Ireland’s instability as an extension of a failure to normalise its status within the United Kingdom. Of course unionists are culpable. Having reluctantly accepted Stormont it was operated with a bunker mentality.

As for a left right swing in NI, unfortunately the UUP responded badly at moments when the NILP threatened to become a meaningful force. But again, had national parties made a meaningful attempt to contest NI politics it might of been different.

The pic of Robinson was meant to juxtapose the ‘loyalist hardman’ image which he cultivated and the pictures which we witnessed last week. The DUP traded on this type of ambiguity, and yes UUP politicians occasionally used the same tactics.

However I’d recommend that you read Arthur Aughey’s ‘Under Siege’, and its refutation of the ‘Queen’s rebels’ reading of unionism. Unionism’s preference has consistently been constitutional politics, within the UK, and when those politics have been available the ambiguity generally vanishes.

As for Trimble’s supposed ‘victory jig’, we remain on a separate page. Where I want genuine contrition for years of brutal sectarian murders you want to mine various incidents to which you attach very particular interpretations.

I regret DT’s involvement at Drumcree, but I certainly doubt whether, without his involvement, he could have delivered the progress he did. An understandable urge, on his home turf, not to let Paisley steal his thunder. A gesture of relief miles away from the contentious area, becomes a ‘victory jig’.

We can go into the various situations you raise and look at them from the point of view of normal UK politics. Vanguard and Sunningdale - an undefined all-Ireland body putting Northern Ireland in an exceptional position. AIA - no unionist input into an imposed anti-democratic agreement which would not have been accepted in any other region of the UK.

You provide a very convenient and facile gloss on hugely complicated areas in terms of Britain’s constitution. Again I urge you to read Aughey on the AIA.

I fully acknowledge the UUP’s failures and culpabilities. But I retain the right to point out where the are being exaggerated. And it is simply not the case that the ‘pan -UK’ version of unionism has sprung from nowhere or that it is not connected in any fashion to Ulster unionism.

yourcousin said...

Know this is a moot point but still wanted to respond, no matter how late, sorry.

We'll take this on a paragraph by paragraph point.

One of the main points is that few people on either side of the debate are willing to appreciate the exceptionalism of NI. Republicans view it as the same as Waterford and Unionists the same as Lincolnshire. It is not either of those places. The exceptionalism of which I speak is also not inherently a positive thing as in "everyone is special in their own way" kind of special either. How can you normalize something that is not normal? To the best of my knowledge the idea of "acceptable level of violence" and "Ulsterization" are two of the most honest attempts at that that I can see and I wouldn't think that either would fly in America or Britain. I would point out that the bunker mentality did not begin or end with Stormont.

You cite the failure of the "national" parties to contest elections, but doesn't this beg the question of the role of the national parties in NI politics? It does to me at least. How can involvement with the mainstream parties lead NI politics out of the proverbial political wilderness if we do not fully appreciate their role in getting and keeping NI in the wilderness in the first place (this is also my basis for the questioning of the UUP)? The Tories were essential in the establishment of the original Stormont with all of its exceptional pieces of legislation. There were no substanative changes between and Labor/Conservative administrations until Blair and the GFA. And we see with each new dawn that the GFA while an improvement over political inspired violence, does not have the answers to the quandry of NI politics.

While I have no like of Peter Robinson I would differentiate between PR the politician/loyalist hardman and PR the husband. I have no doubt that there was a mixing of the two in this debacle but to denegrate the suffering of the husband so to gain advantage over the politician is a little much for me. Not that that matters. As for the ambiguity, to me the UUP kept power for almost fifty years on that ambiguity, and strove to keep it up in latter years. That's more than "occasionally" to me.

I tried to find Aughey and the cheapest copy on Amazon is just under eighty bucks and I can't even find it on my library catalogues. I'll put it on my wishlist, but much like the Donegal Mafia book I feel it shall remain elusive for some while. Sorry but at least I honestly tried. I'd be curious to follow up on some of the idea that he proposes, but of course I'd have to read more. It also makes me think that no matter the effect it made on you, to mark it as a definitive refutation of the unoinism as Queens rebels might be a bit much, but then again I'd have to see the text.

(to be continued)

yourcousin said...


I have no doubt we will remain on seperate pages on a variety of matters. It is how we communicate between readings that counts.

You may well regret Trimble's presence at Drumcree, but I feel you are not being honest about his time there. He was not there as a moderate trying to calm things down. He was shoring up his credentials with the hardline elements. As Turgon noted (as he was there the night Trimble became UUP leader) he was elected as a hardliner and immediately became a moderate. He was at Drumcree to shore up a hardman image. I might even grant the "gesture of relief" line had Trimble said that the compromise had worked and that he was just happy that things had passed off peacefully. That's a gesture of relief. Stating that there had been no compromise and that the Orangemen have simply walked their traditional is grandstanding. Sorry I'm not trying to score points here, just call them how I see them.

As for mining and facile glosses. You and I may not agree on much (though I do like Liverpool btw) our exchanges have always be noted for two things in my mind. First has always been the attempt at courtesy and civility. Secondly has been the length of exchanges. I mean FFS I'm writing a comment on a blog. Not a counterpoint editorial. Few if any other commenters will bother you with a comment this long. No saying my comments are better, but facile is hardly a word I would use.

I would not say that Vanguard, Sunningdale, or the AIA would have been tolerated in any other part of the UK, but then again neither would have the USC (aka the B-Specials, which Churchill and Tories voted for), Special Powers Act, non universal suffrage after 1929, Shoot to Kill etc. but that speaks to my earlier point NI exceptionalism.

You state that the AIA was undemocratic and yet it passed by overwhelming majority at Westminister which you state is the, "ultimate sovereignty". And looking at British constitutional writings I was struck by that pertinence of the concept of "Parliamentary Sovereignty" as the bedrock of the myriad of Constitutional writings. And yet time and time again I see something different in Ulster. That's okay, but I guess I'll be expecting great things from Aughey when I get a copy of his works.

I don't believe I'm exaggerating anything. I don't see you fully acknowledging the UUP's failings and culpabilities. Nor should you inherently have to. But I find it odd that you give the DUP endless amounts of shit over beliefs still held by many in your own party (including in leadership positions). I would not paint you with the same brush and I acknowledge the fact that you believe in a vision of unionism larger than just orangism.

I would agree with you that pan UK unionism did not just spring from nowhere, but I would also say that the the UCUNF project is not inherently the strongest representation of that tradition. And that there is a great deal of UUP history and belief that stands contrary to that tradition. That is my point