The DUP leader restates the case for devolution and emphasises his party’s independent thinking, as he discusses his role with Owen McQuade and Peter Cheney in the latest in our series of interviews with party leaders.
Peter Robinson has often recalled how the death of his friend Harry Beggs brought him into politics but it is clear that that event still resonates with him nearly 38 years on.
The group of friends played football as often as they could – “which was considerably more exciting than the classes for all of us” at Annadale Grammar School – but they went their separate ways after school. About a year later, in August 1971, he heard of an IRA bombing at the Northern Ireland Electricity Service headquarters, in which Harry had been killed.
“My family didn’t have any background in politics whatsoever. My father wasn’t in any of the loyal orders or institutions. However, that was the issue that I think stirred up in me an interest in wider political areas and I determined that I would get myself involved.”
Many other young people around Belfast at that time were drawn into vigilante groups, later to become paramilitaries, but he decided that was not the way for change.
When Robinson was at school, his first pamphlet – ‘The North Answers Back’ – went to press through Ian Paisley’s printing company. He then took his political interest further by going to Paisley’s rallies. For a short time, he worked as an estate agent with Alex Murdoch & Deane but decided to take a salary drop to become the party’s first General Secretary in 1975.
Asked if he felt that he owed Allister something as a result, he replies jokingly: “Well, as you know, I brought him out from his position at the Bar back into politics so I’m sure that he and I both have things to regret in our past.”
From being the outsiders in Northern Ireland politics – a “ginger group on the fringes of unionism” in his words – the party is now very much on the inside as the largest partner in the Executive.
“When you’re seeking to become the largest party, you’ve got a goal, an ambition which itself drives you on. Then suddenly you find yourself there and I think that’s the process that we’re in at the present time: redefining what the goal and position of the party is.”
The DUP has a different focus now that it is leading in government which does not stir as much passion as during its rise to power. Especially in the light of the European election results, Robinson’s aim has been to spread the ‘gospel’ of devolution and its benefits to Northern Ireland.
Those benefits, according to Robinson, can be seen through two points of view – from the perspective of either an ordinary citizen or a unionist. He answers the question of what the key benefits are in both ways.
“Strangely, from the point of view of unionism, the greatest benefits of devolution are the things that haven’t happened, and that’s been one of the difficulties for the party. It’s always hard to sell what we have stopped from happening,” he points out.
“If direct rule had continued, and as others have rightly identified it is a direct rule with a very considerable Dublin involvement, then very clearly the same pattern there had been before devolution had been set up – continual concessions – would have been the natural outcome. As it is, we now have a system where we can stop things which are not in the interests of our section of the community – just as nationalists can stop things that are not in the interests of their community – but as most of the direction on government travel had been to the detriment of unionism, I think we’ve been able to stop an awful lot of things that would have been disadvantageous to unionism.”
Halting the proposed Irish Language Act is one example of this ability to stop things which unionists would oppose, and this is balanced by the ability to take decisions rather than “sitting on the sidelines”. Under direct rule, it was possible to “complain and groan” when things did not go their way but there was no power to change policy.
Looking at devolution from the citizen’s viewpoint, he methodically lists the advantages to householders and businesses which would not have come about if direct rule had continued.
Stopping water charges – which would have cost families £350 per year – and freezing the regional rate means that families now do not have to pay out an average of over £1,000 over three years: “Now, if every family had to do that in Northern Ireland at a time of an economic downturn, I think that there would have been very considerable complaints.”
Free travel for senior citizens has been extended, prescription charges are being phased out, the Executive has allowed hardship payments to tackle fuel poverty and the industrial rate has been frozen at 30 per cent.
A “business-friendly” Programme for Government has also delivered £1.7 billion in capital spending which is helping to maintain the struggling construction industry: “If you had the old style capital spending of direct rule plus a recession, we would have had a very difficult position indeed.”
The DUP is deciding on the key issues on which to deliver before the next Assembly election, due in 2011. Collectively, Robinson thinks that the Assembly and Executive has failed to demonstrate to people that devolution is working for them but he also criticises how the press has covered its work.
“We always will have a difficulty with the press. The press like negative stories, they want bad news, bad news sells newspapers. So the desire of the press is always to get controversy or to indicate something that’s negative. The Executive, in my view, has not done enough to accentuate the positive – to show what it is that we have delivered – and we can’t rely on the press to do that. We have to do that ourselves.”
Not hitching wagons
It was put to him that the party was now ‘squeezed’ between the hard-line TUV and moderate UUP and Conservatives. He dismisses any talk of moving along the political spectrum toward one side or the other and states his view that the DUP will stand its ground.
“We as a party will stand for the union. We will stand for devolution. We will stand for getting the best deal for the people of Northern Ireland. We are firmly of the belief that Northern Ireland has a very attractive future and we’re going out to pursue that. And other people can position themselves in accordance to where we are. As the largest party, we will determine where our position is.”
Unionism’s future prospects are damaged by its current divisions, he maintained, as he turned his attention to the UUPConservative pact.
“At a time when the focus is on getting the best we can for Northern Ireland out of devolution, they’ve [the Ulster Unionists have] opted out. They’ve decided to string themselves to a Westminster, English Tory Party.”
Robinson continues: “I’m all for having a good relationship with the Conservative and Labour [parties] but I don’t believe that it’s in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland that we hitch up to one of their wagons.”
The Conservatives have “betrayed unionism” twice before, his examples being their treatment of Carson and Craigavon in the 1920s and the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. In a clear reference to Reg Empey, he claims that any unionist leader who tries to attach Northern Ireland’s future to that party is making a “gross error”.
Shortly after the European election, Robinson quoted a blog that said the DUP had been good at governance while Sinn Féin was good at connecting with its base.
Expanding on this, he says that the DUP has had a tendency to “do what is right though the stars may fall” and while he approves of this, Robinson recognises that it is also proper that political decisions are clearly explained and the party’s electorate is not taken by surprise.
“I think that there have been failings in that area and it would be wrong of us not to recognise and identify those failings. I believe that the decisions we took were the right decisions but I think that a lot of people could not understand why we took those decisions at the time we did and in the way we did.”
The choice, he repeats, was either devolution or direct rule with an increased role for the Irish Government.
“Given the choice of having the ability to determine your own future and to have others determine it for you, I’m all for taking my own decisions. Hard though those may be, I’d rather take those decisions myself.”
In an interview with agendaNi, political reporter Eamonn Mallie commented last summer that the political score between the DUP and Sinn Féin was 5-0 in both the Executive and the Assembly. Robinson wants to continue to be good in government as well as communicating better with supporters.
“And yes, I have heard the expression used that we are 5-0 ahead but a colleague of mine said to me: ‘The trouble very often with the electorate is that they’ll say yes, you might have won the game by five goals to nil but the other team got a corner in the second half. And they’ll spend more time considering how on earth we gave away a corner rather than the fact that we were five goals ahead.’”
Delivery is what matters most to people on the ground but unless the benefits are communicated to the electorate, a party will not bring its people along with it.
Within the machinery of government, the DUP’s objective is to bring about a voluntary coalition government but nationalist parties – both Sinn Féin and the SDLP – are currently opposed to this move.
Robinson sees voluntary coalition as the strongest and most democratic form of government but the party took the view that devolution needed to be set up and run before it was ‘normalised’. Propositions for change can now be discussed within the Assembly and Executive Review Committee.
He is clear about the practical flaws within the current system.
“Quite frankly, I would hope that we would be able to bring nationalists along with us because the present system is better than what we’ve been used to, but I can assure you that it is far from perfect,” he comments.
“It is a slow and cumbersome process where you are requiring to get all sorts of agreements on the most minor of issues and that isn’t good for government. We’ve got to be able to expedite our processes and be able to get clear decisions taken.”
Increasingly, he expects that everyone – whether unionist or nationalist – will want a better method of making decisions which can both carry the community’s support and also be effective and efficient.
Double jobbing has dominated coverage about the DUP’s approach to Westminster but Robinson admits that he is “not sure that too many of us wanted to be involved in it at all”. He says that this was a short-term practice to ensure that the Assembly included the most experienced party representatives.
Even before the expenses scandal, the party had indicated that it wanted to phase out dual mandates as the Assembly’s future was secure. This was originally meant to take place over this Parliament and the following Parliament but Robinson has speeded the process up by asking his MPs to choose between Stormont or Westminster by the next general election. Party officers want one or two MPs to continue the link between the two institutions in the next Parliament but most will be solely MPs.
Robinson criticises David Cameron for protesting against dual mandates when several of his front benchers have jobs outside politics in business and other fields. Cameron’s shadow Cabinet MPs will give up their second jobs by the end of this year but other Tory front benchers will be able to continue the practice into 2010.
“We’re saying that our MPs will not have any other interest when we finish our process of change. And I think that is good not just in terms of representation and having people that can concentrate on the one job, but it’s good for the party because it allows the party to develop. It frees up positions, that we can bring other people along and they can themselves develop skills. It also means that we have more people on the ground.”
He will also have his own choices to make. When asked if he saw himself more as a ‘Stormont man’ or a ‘Westminster man’ at the moment, his answer significantly left out one of those places.
“I think Northern Ireland’s future is tied up with the Assembly. I think the Assembly’s future is tied up with the future of the DUP. And I don’t think that I can walk away from having identified that as being the critical way forward for Northern Ireland.”
Robinson’s thirtieth anniversary as East Belfast’s MP has just passed and the constituency’s economy has changed greatly over the years. Low cost competition elsewhere in the world has reduced the scale of heavy manufacturing but successful companies have survived by finding high tech niche markets.
Devolution has “immeasurably” benefitted the area, which now has one of the province’s lowest levels of unemployment.
In the Titanic Quarter, there is “significant potential” for financial service, business service and IT jobs after the recession alongside a “synergy” with the new Belfast Metropolitan College campus nearby. He is proud to highlight Bombardier’s £500 million CSeries jet order and Thales’ £200 million missile contract with the Ministry of Defence. Community-based regeneration is also expanding in Tullycarnet and on the Lower Newtownards Road.
Poor housing was a major problem when he was first elected, taking up 90 per cent of constituency cases, but this now accounts for around 10 per cent of the workload. He puts this change down to either the Housing Executive getting better at its job or the sale of social housing freeing up more time and resources for looking after the remaining properties.
“There are a lot of really good things happening in East Belfast. There has never been a period in East Belfast’s history where so much has been happening and there is so much development potential.”