'Moving forward' a winning mantra for DUP

 

Humbler Robinson plays well with the electorate, and not just unionists, writes DAN KEENAN

WHAT A difference a year makes. Twelve months ago Peter Robinson, the colour drained from his very tired face, left Newtownards count centre stripped of his Westminster seat. That was only the latest in a series of blows, both political and personal, and it appeared to all but floor him.

This time he arrived at the same count centre to be greeted with a measured yet enthusiastic celebration by party figures – nine of whom were on the cusp of election to the fourth post-Belfast Agreement Assembly.

There was a strong sense, not just from the refreshed DUP leader, that the awfulness of 2010 has prepared them for the success that 2011 has brought and they are the better for it. This is a DUP stripped of much of its traditional bombastic swagger. Its leader now cuts a more modest, sensitive and appreciative figure.

There was no hymn singing, little flag-waving and no borrowing of the language of war. Instead there is ceaseless talk of “moving forward” – a mantra repeated almost to the point of overkill by a clearly committed and on-message team of candidates.

Gone too is what used to come across as the Robinson anger, that edge to the voice and the dismissiveness. There is no doubt that the humbler Peter Robinson, who has emerged from humiliation and near ruin is playing better with the electorate. And not just the unionist electorate.

It is hard to imagine the current generation of Irish republicans sharing power with the former Peter Robinson – dark glasses and beret Robinson. But they are, and they seem to find it a straightforward process. There is no longer any talk of “a battle a day” between the undisputed kings of Stormont politics.

Instead, the fiery rhetoric came from others. Ill-tempered remarks by Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott were greeted with mock pity by the hordes of DUP people.

By branding Sinn Féin as scum and dismissing the Tricolour as foreign, Mr Elliott has, at a stroke, both annoyed just about every living, breathing nationalist and placed himself well wide the Belfast Agreement consensus and in a distant spot somewhere close to lone renegade Jim Allister.

No wonder Mr Robinson refused to make hay. Why bother? Let people like the brother of Ronan Kerr, who dismissed Mr Elliott as “pre-historic”, do the business for you.

Martin McGuinness opted for similar tactics. In one of his many interviews, he commented: “In the past the battles were all against each other. We now need to do battle together against the world recession, against unemployment, against poverty, trying to develop our economy, trying to protect frontline services, and to protect the interests of the poorest and most disadvantaged in our society.”

Ulster Unionists found the drawn-out count a difficult process. While 16 of its candidates did make it back to Stormont, in truth many of them did so very late in the process, under the quota or reliant on the transfers of others – including the DUP.

It was similar for the SDLP. Joe Boyle, the party’s perennial Strangford candidate came seventh yet again. With no podium finish, he seemed to typify the SDLP’s election – a decent failure.

The Ulster Unionist electorate seems to have found any number of places to migrate to. One option is the independents, which are now populated with former – and very disgruntled – Ulster Unionists. Another of the choices is Alliance, and they were pleased with another advance in strongly unionist eastern constituencies.

Kieran McCarthy, comfortably returned in Strangford signed off his thank-yous in both Ulster Scots and Irish. It’s been a while since that happened in true-blue north Co Down.