Robinson politely invites the turkeys to vote for Christmas
DUP leader’s plan for an opposition would yield a neat two-party state
The DUP rally in the La Mon hotel in the east Belfast countryside over Friday and Saturday – as mentioned here before, the term “conference” doesn’t quite cut it – was once again a flag-waving, tub-thumping, back-slapping, very exuberant, very confident affair.
Up to 800 delegates enjoyed Peter Robinson saying that Gerry Adams calling for a Border poll on a united Ireland – a referendum he was certain would be hugely defeated – “makes turkeys voting for Christmas look like a carefully considered strategy ”.
You’d wonder, though, were all these waving Union Jacks and red hand of Ulster flags in the packed conference room going a little to Robinson’s head. During one portion of his lively, well-received speech he spoke in smooth tones to the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP, and perhaps even to the Alliance Party.
The SDLP and the UUP have one department each in the Northern Ireland Executive while the smaller Alliance has two, an anomaly down to Alliance being the only party that could take on the running of the justice department.
Mr Robinson wondered would they perhaps like to establish a formal opposition at Stormont. After all, the UUP has expressed interest in the notion while the SDLP deputy leader, Dolores Kelly, suggested it would be a good idea, even though her kite was effectively shot down by her leader, Dr Alasdair McDonnell.
The First Minister spoke about how he was prepared to facilitate the UUP, or any other party, if it wished to go into opposition. As well he might. That would certainly transform the political geography of Northern Ireland – it would be a neat two-party DUP-Sinn Féin state. It might even last as long as the last one-party unionist state.
When you dug down, and rather like his reference to the Border poll, it was really akin to the First Minister politely inviting the UUP and the SDLP to be turkeys voting for Christmas. But it all sounded so sweet and reasonable.
Last year Mr Robinson majored on how he wanted to create a society in Northern Ireland freed of its “them and us” divisions. There were strong commitments then about tackling sectarianism, but a year later we are still waiting for the promised cohesion, sharing and integration strategy proposals.
But he assured delegates that they were virtually completed. More ominously, however, he indicated it might be a limited document because it wouldn’t contain everything “that I or any other leader would want”.
He didn’t spell it out but it might be that his preferred notion of creating a single education system – doing away with the different Catholic, Protestant or British state, integrated and Irish-language sectors – might be long-fingered.
Much of his speech was pointing to the positives for unionism. “The siege has lifted, the Troubles as we knew them are over, and the constitutional debate has been won,” he said.
But he also knows that in the coming years the population breakdown will see an increase in numbers from a Catholic or nationalist background. That’s because there are more Catholics than Protestants at all education levels, including third level, in Northern Ireland.
So he was careful not to antagonise any potential current and future Catholic support, particularly those he felt might be alienated by what he called the far left and left policies of Sinn Féin and the SDLP. Every party of any size in Northern Ireland now seems to be in the centre, so that description may not stand up.
Still, as part of that pitch he reminded delegates that powersharing is working and that there is no alternative to Sinn Féin in government.
More challengingly for the DUP rank and file, he also told them that “building this new constituency will require as much of an adjustment from us at it will require a leap of faith from those whose votes we seek”.