Leading from the front is only way forward

By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)

Peter Robinson is facing what every single leader of unionism has faced since at least the late 1960s.

It is what is known as the O’Neill factor. Terence O’Neill was one time leader of the Unionist Party and prime minister of the north.

During the latter days of his premiership in the late 60s, faced with the demands from the Civil Rights Movement, he tried to introduce reforms.

His reform programme, which was very limited indeed, led to a rebellion in his party with figures like Brian Faulkner and Bill Craig opposing him.

Faulkner later emerged as leader of the same party that O’Neill led. He faced the same dilemma that O’Neill faced and found himself leading a power-sharing administration with the SDLP and the Alliance Party which was brought down during the Ulster Workers Council strike of 1974.

Faulkner followed O’Neill into political oblivion because his reform programme was a step too far for those in his party and those in the DUP like Peter Robinson.

David Trimble faced the exact same difficulties in his party - only then it was Jeffrey Donaldson who was blocking any moves towards change until he jumped ship to the DUP.

Ian Paisley snr, the man who was responsible for writing the obituaries of many unionist leaders stretching back to O’Neill, faced what Peter Robinson faces today but he had the leadership qualities to see off any opposition from within his party and from beyond it.

His period in office with Martin McGuinness was a turning point for that section of unionism which had historically blocked any moves towards equality and recognition of the rights of nationalists.

This period when Paisley snr and Martin McGuinness were at the helm of the northern government was a period when people’s morale was at its highest and the institutions at their most popular.

But it is now clear from the emergence in this year’s European election of Jim Allister, on the right of the DUP with 14 per cent of the vote, that once again a small section of unionist opinion could derail the progress that has been made to date.

The impact of Allister’s vote on the DUP leadership seems to have spooked them beyond the strength of the actual vote itself. This is hardly surprising because there are many senior figures in the DUP who privately sympathise with Allister and are acting as fifth columnists inside the party.

But the issue facing Peter Robinson and those around him is whether they will allow the agenda for their party and those who elect them to be set by Allister or will they show the leadership that Paisley snr displayed and lead from the front.

There is no other way forward for unionists and nationalists other than what has been agreed in the Good Friday Agreement.

A lot of progress has been made and Ireland and the north of Ireland is in a much better place than it was a decade ago.

It is surprising that the DUP have decided to dig in on the issue of the transfer of policing and justice powers because both Sinn Fein and the DUP have accepted that they will forego ministerial responsibility in the first term.

It is also surprising that Peter Robinson is hiding behind the cost of running the ministry when in fact the issue is about politics not money. Co-opting David Cameron and Sir Reg Empey to support his argument is a delaying tactic which Cameron seems keen to play.

He presumably has his eye on the next Westminster election and the possibility of a hung parliament when the DUP’s votes at Westminster might come to his assistance.

Cameron would do well to get a crash course in Irish history and particularly the part in that history where British prime ministers played the unionist card for their own narrow agenda and the people of this country suffered as a result.

Peter Robinson is at the same cross-roads where Terence O’Neill stood. The circumstances are not the same. The last 40 years of political conflict has made Robinson’s job easier not harder.

He needs to steady himself and those around him and see Allister off or risk his own political demise.

Urgent Appeal

Despite increasing support for Irish freedom and unity, we need your help to overcome British and unionist intransigence. We can end the denial of our rights in relation to Brexit, the Irish language, a border poll and legacy issues, with your support.

Please support IRN now to help us continue reporting and campaigning so that justice prevails. Even one pound a month can make a big difference for us.

Your contribution can be made with a credit or debit card by clicking below. A continuing monthly donation of £2 or more will give you full access to this site. Thank you. Go raibh míle maith agat.

© 2009 Irish Republican News