Why did Peter Robinson, and him in Florida, send a letter that threatens the very existence of the Stormont institutions? Maybe it was being too long out in the Florida sun. Or maybe there’s a clue in something he said earlier this year: “One of the elements of leadership that is always important is to know just how far ahead of the pack that you should be. And it is all right having great ideas and great wisdom on these matters but you have to be able to bring people along with you.”
That’s a leader talking. But are those the words of a shrewd pragmatist who knows the limitations of power, or the voice of one who says “There goes the mob, I am their leader, I must quickly follow”?
Alas, it looks more like the second rather than the first. For weeks now, various top DUP people, particularly Arlene Foster, have been loudly critical of the republican commemorative march held in Castlederg earlier this summer. In razor-sharp contrast, there hasn’t been a peep about loyalist rioting in Belfast City Centre which left over 50 PSNI officers injured. This isn’t a case of the DUP leadership having great ideas but the grassroots refuses to stomach them. This is a case of the DUP leadership being bereft of ideas and its right-wing elements leading it by the nose. We saw the same thing in Belfast City Hall on Monday night, when the DUP couldn’t bring itself to support a motion condemning the Woodvale attack on Belfast’s Lord Mayor.
Instead, Peter and Co have chosen to turn a blind eye and deaf ear to illegal activities (yes, Virginia, it is against the law to attack the police or assault a mayor) while using a megaphone to trumpet its outrage at the totally-legal republican parade in Castlederg. In fact, Peter Robinson used Castlederg as part-excuse for his Long Kesh/Maze U-turn. He knows (I hope) that his U-turn could be a deal-breaker for the whole Long Kesh development. He appears less aware that his U-turn could break the whole power-sharing deal.
How so? Well, let’s consider the options open to Sinn Féin. They either agree to go along with the DUP rethink and abandon the notion of a peace centre at Long Kesh; or they insist that the DUP have crossed a red line - gone back on its pledged word - and that working with such people is impossible. Martin McGuinness could say “OK, put Stormont back in moth-balls again, there’s no point in trying to work with a party whose face is so stonily set against power-sharing”.
I’d favour the second response, for the good reason that it’d force the DUP to face a choice. Either it accepts its equal part in the governing of what Joel Taggart last week on Raidio Uladh/Radio Ulster fondly called “our wee country”, or they face the massive loss of income and power that must come with a collapse of Stormont. And as the good Dr Samuel Johnson said, there's nothing like the prospect of being hanged to concentrate the mind.
Wasn’t it Arlene Foster herself who warned Sinn Féin to be careful what they wished for regarding a border poll, since they might just get one? Well indeed, Arlene. Maybe have a word with Peter so he doesn’t wish too hard for no shrine-to-terrorists at Long Kesh. He could get his wish, and a whole lot more as well.