Robinson now a prisoner
Robinson now a prisoner

By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)

Peter Robinson is now the prisoner of his party’s hardliners. They are keeping him in custody until they can agree a method of disposing of his political carcass.

When a political party has to meet to offer its leader ‘wholehearted support’ or a vote of confidence you know the game is up.

Any political leader knows a vote of confidence is the kiss of death because it’s always qualified.

Sometimes the qualified support is visible in the number of votes for and against the leader.

Sometimes as in this instance, if a vote is avoided, the qualified support is evidenced by conditions imposed on the leader. Never mind about yesterday’s ‘unanimous support’.

That just means a vote was too risky.

The outcome was a compromise as always in such circumstances.

Essentially Peter Robinson has been given a six-week stay of execution.

During those six weeks he will be bombarded with requests for information from the assembly’s ethics committee and, more seriously, from the House of Commons Committee for Standards and Privileges.

Sinn Fein’s chief whip Caral Ni Chuilin has already called in the assembly’s standards and privileges committee.

Responding to these investigations will occupy all Robinson’s time.

Yet ridiculously he has claimed stepping aside from his role as first minister will enable him to “continue to work on the outstanding issues relating to policing and justice and some other matters. This [whatever ‘this’ is] allows a particularly concentrated focus on these discussions and we will work to try to build on the agreements we have already reached so that a successful resolution can be reached.” Hogwash.

In reality stepping aside means the opposite of what Robinson claims. As a lame-duck leader his party hardliners will not permit him to deliver on policing and justice. Think about it. He comes to the party in a month or even worse, in six weeks, and says he has concluded a deal on devolution of policing and justice. We know most of his party’s MPs oppose devolution in any circumstances. Are they more likely to support it in March, two months before a general election, than four months before? Of course not. On the contrary, as their prisoner Robinson will have to plead to be allowed back as full-time first minister and asking to get back at the same time es endorsing a deal with Sinn Fein on policing and justice is a non-starter.

The truth is that in practical terms there is now no time to get a deal. Sinn Fein might get the promise of a deal after the general election but it’s a case of ‘live oul horse and you’ll get grass.’

It’s perfectly obvious that Arlene Foster will competently carry on day-to-day business but does not have the clout in the DUP to push through anything controversial, nor would she even try and that’s why they nominated her. What we are now looking at is marking time until the election in May. It’s a triumph for the DUPs backwoodsmen. Peter Robinson has lost all authority.

He’s under an obligation to the backwoodsmen for allowing him to survive and his continued survival as a zombie DUP leader is in their hands, but continued survival depends on not making any progress with any move on policing and justice.

The inescapable fact is that the DUP candidates in the British election believe that there are no votes in letting Sinn Fein get their hands near policing and justice.

Martin McGuinness will be able to cooperate perfectly well with the business-like Arlene Foster on the routine mundane tasks in the Office of First and Deputy First Minister, in fact better than with Robinson who has been refusing to meet him in case the dreaded issue of policing is raised.

Yesterday’s outcome is preferable for the DUP because the party’s political negotiations are now being conducted by a man who has no longer the authority to cut a deal. In due course Arlene will move aside and make way for the real new leader, Depooty Dawds.

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