Staying in Stormont Executive makes life very difficult for DUP

Sinn Féin will have to deliver something for Robinson if power-sharing is to survive

First Minister Peter Robinson: has had a rough year, personally and politically. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire.

First Minister Peter Robinson: has had a rough year, personally and politically. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire.

 

In Dublin and in London there is relief that Peter Robinson can still summon the energy on his return from holidays to make one last stab at trying to protect Stormont in the face of the crisis over the IRA and the killing of Kevin McGuigan.

It’s been a rough year for Robinson. Personally, he suffered a heart attack. Politically, he helped see through the Stormont House Agreement at Christmas last year to bring Stormont back on track and to address a range of important issues such as dealing with the past, the budget, corporation tax and other matters.

That all crashed when Sinn Féin pulled out of the deal in March over welfare reform, leaving what former finance minister Arlene Foster described as an “unsustainable” £600 million hole in the North’s budget which also has the potential to bring down the Executive and Assembly.

Even without the PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton’s assessment that the IRA still exists and that some of its members killed Kevin McGuigan, Robinson would have been returning to a looming financial crisis in any case.

Last straw

UlsterMike NesbittDanny KennedyTraditional Unionist VoiceJim Allister

That was why there was governmental anxiety about what frame of mind Robinson would be in when returning from his holidays. Would he be defeatist or defiant?

The British and Irish governments were comforted to see it was the latter. Robinson’s competitive nature came through. The last thing he wanted was to be outflanked by Mike Nesbitt so he decided to engage in some of his own outmanoeuvring.

In typical acerbic Robinson style, he was dismissive of Nesbitt’s tactic, accusing him of cynical electoral opportunism. “Let’s be clear if other unionists were to follow his so-called ‘principled’ move the fall of Stormont is exactly what would happen and terror would triumph,” he wrote in Monday’s Belfast Telegraph. “This is not the time to flee the battlefield.”

So, a welcome return of the Robinson not-an-inch fighting spirit, as far as London and Dublin are concerned. But a fighting spirit does not guarantee success on the battlefield. Robinson and the DUP will need assistance from the two governments, and from Sinn Féin. Moreover, Robinson is not the force he once was within the DUP, and there are internal opponents who may seize this opportunity to unsettle him.

A lot is happening at governmental level to determine whether there is a way forward. Robinson is meeting British prime minister David Cameron in London today while Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers is meeting Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald in Dublin. British and Irish officials are liaising with the parties, while Taoiseach Enda Kenny will deliver his thoughts on the crisis at the British Irish Association conference in Cambridge on Friday.

Deadlock

Independent Monitoring Commission

The DUP, Dublin and London will be watching to see what Sinn Féin can offer to restore some form of unionist faith in the party. Sinn Féin is also considering how to proceed. In a period of much mutual recrimination and suspicion some in Sinn Féin contend Robinson is just going through the motions preparatory to also quitting Stormont.

The reality however is, if Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness can’t or won’t deliver something for Robinson, the odds of saving Stormont are close to non-existent. Hitherto the line has been, to quote the Sinn Féin president, “the IRA has gone away, you know” and “there is nothing more Sinn Féin can do”.

Sinn Féin will have to do much better than that, as far as Robinson and the two governments are concerned. Now it’s down to whether Adams and McGuinness are prepared to reciprocate.