Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Halting politics because of one man's difficulties

In today's Belfast Telegraph I comment on Peter Robinson's six week leave of absence.

When Peter Robinson announced his intention to step aside from the First Minister's role for six weeks yesterday he chose to prolong a crisis of political leadership at Stormont.

Mr Robinson hopes to use the respite to answer allegations raised by a sensational Spotlight investigation into financial arrangements which his wife Iris struck with a 19-year-old businessman.

But his absence will leave the Assembly in limbo at a crucial period. Peter Robinson's increasingly desperate attempts to safeguard his own career could compromise Northern Ireland's political future and damage the electoral prospects of his party.

It has been a traumatic couple of weeks for the DUP leader in the aftermath of Iris's withdrawal from public life. Seamy revelations about her relationship with a teenage entrepreneur have been accompanied by wider concerns over the Robinsons' financial affairs. It has been suggested that Peter was privy to information about his wife's dealings which he was obliged by a ministerial code to divulge to the appropriate authorities.

Although the charge is rather abstract in comparison to concrete allegations against Iris, the East Belfast MLA clearly has a case to answer. However, politics here cannot come to a halt while Peter Robinson clears his name.

Although, developing a point which I raised on 'Three Thousand Versts' yesterday, where there is damage for the 'carve-up' parties, there is a silver lining.

The prevailing orthodoxy that Northern Ireland's stability depends upon the compact between a strong DUP and a strong Sinn Fein deserves to be tested. If the two parties lose ground at the polls it does not represent a fatal blow to the peace process.

It is unthinkable that the DUP will not sustain damage after the Robinson revelations. The period of drift into which we are now entering can only exacerbate the party's sense of crisis. Its leader has condemned it to the type of 'drip, drip' effect which is currently undermining Gordon Brown's Labour leadership in London.

Meanwhile, Stormont must endure another period of uncertainty, thanks to the personal and political difficulties of one man.

The only possible source of comfort is that, by standing aside temporarily, Peter Robinson might actually contribute to a realignment capable - eventually - of delivering stable government to Northern Ireland.


Kevinho said...

Lets just hope that the DUP's core constituency doesn't react by moving even further to the religious right.

Chekov said...


The truth is that the DUP cannot rely only the religious right. In order to become the biggest party it had to attract votes from the centre. People who had, up to that point, viewed the party with distaste, but held their noses because 1) they felt the party was no longer composed entirely of bible bashing fundamentalists 2) they felt the DUP were tougher negotiators and therefore could be relied upon to hang tough against SF.

To be honest, Robinson, who is a plausible enough politician on a day to day basis and who rarely 'did God' until his wife began spouting about the 'gays', was an important figure in winning over moderate unionists. He is viewed as an extremely capable and astute politician.

The fact that his career and his credibility is falling apart will damage the DUP. And whilst the party will probably leak votes to the headbanging TUV, never in a million years will the people, who felt a bit dirty voting DUP anyway, swing further to the extremes. The moderate parties really have got to work hard not to fuck it up!

Sam Semple said...

..which is why now is the time for the centre parties to work together on a joint "Manifesto for better government".

Clear agreed policies between the SDLP, Alliance and UUP on all the contentious issues.

"A vote for the centre parties can ensure good government from Day 1."

Anonymous said...


One would hardly call Reg Empey's approach - aping Jim Allister over Policing and Justice, the action of a serious centre-ground politician. More like political expediency of the worst kind.

Chekov said...

Oh yes. Here we go. Centre ground = complaining about DUP / SF, but capitulating to their carve-up. Sir Reg Empey should make his party's assent to P & J dependent upon real change at Stormont.