Peter Robinson: ‘I have been on a journey like everybody else’

First Minister and DUP leader reflects on his time in politics following his resignation

Peter Robinson is to stand down as DUP leader. The veteran politician suffered a heart attack this year, but insisted he made his mind up to step down before his health scare.

 

“I’m demob happy,” says Peter Robinson, as he ushers me into his office in Stormont Castle.

Three of his Civil Service staff are bantering in his outer office as we pass through. “Yes, you can see how sad they are to see me go,” he adds. It’s all very cheerful.

The First Minister and DUP leader certainly sounds like a man who can’t wait until this process of resigning and seeing his successors in place is completed, which should happen by the end of this year or early in the new year.

It’s been quite a career, from bringing down the 1974 Sunningdale powersharing administration to 41 years later going through political hoops to ensure that this current powersharing administration stays up.

And that’s not to mention the personal ordeal of all that followed from his wife Iris engaging in an extra-marital affair with a 19-year-old.

“Iris is well,” says Robinson. “She is out and about and longing for the handover date to come about so that we can spend some time together considering that for all of our married life I have been involved in politics, and how rigorous that has been.”

Robinson acknowledges that he and the DUP had to go through some embarrassing political manoeuvres to prevent the Executive from collapsing following the murder of Kevin McGuigan.

There’s even a qualified acceptance that Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt got one over on him in withdrawing his minister, Danny Kennedy, from the Northern Executive after the McGuigan killing.

Messy

“ The alternative was to collapse the Assembly and go into an Assembly election and not come out the other end because the institutions would collapse. So, yes it was messy but we have come through,” he says.

“This is the difference between tactics and strategy. Mike [Nesbitt] has tactics, I have strategy. Those who are involved only in tactics look to the short term.

“I look to the long term. I have goals and objectives and if I have to go through a messy period in order to accomplish my objective I will do it.”

Unnerved

“I think the electorate in the long term will recognise that maintaining the Assembly and Executive in existence, getting the deal that we did on paramilitarism, getting the additional funding that we did, getting social welfare sorted out as we did after two years, getting corporation tax resolved, all of those were worth doing.”

He won’t say who he wants to succeed him, although the speculation is on deputy leader Nigel Dodds as leader and Arlene Foster as first minister.

He has been First Minister since 2008.

“I have been in this top post for longer than any unionist leader since the days of Viscount Brookeborough [1943-1963].”

Robinson says he had three political ambitions: “Putting the state of the union first, the state of the Assembly second and the state of the party third”.

The state of the union is sound, he says, and the Assembly and the DUP “are in good shape”. So, he can exit with the feeling of a job well done.

He acknowledges that on the chat shows yesterday there were lots of references to the darker political days, particularly from nationalists, to consorting with loyalists in toppling Sunningdale, to the Third Force, Ulster Resistance, to annoying the innocent inhabitants of Clontibret, Co Monaghan.

Maybe some could have been “more gracious” but “that’s politics”, he says.

Friend murdered

“Nobody can enter politics with that background without it having an impact on their outlook . . . You could not live in this community without having some ‘prejudice’. Everybody has it even if they are in denial.

“So yes, I have been on a journey like everybody else, but I have no doubt that the course I am on is the best course for Northern Ireland, the way to take it forward into a new era.”

He says the controversy over the sale of Nama’s Northern Ireland portfolio “can’t come back to haunt” him.

“It has always been based on inaccuracies. So I don’t have any concerns on that whatsoever.”

Of working with the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, he says, “you could not work with somebody for 7½ years without building up a friendship, because if you had not been able to do that, it would not have lasted for 7½ years”.

He even has positive things to say about Gerry Adams. “I have always found him to be a calming influence on Sinn Féin. You would not get agreements with Sinn Féin unless he had given his seal of approval to them.”

And he is hopeful of the future and the coming generations.

“The longer the process goes on the more young people will change the future,” he says. “In my day it was whether you were going to live through the next 24 hours, where the terrorist bomb would be placed; it was about the constitutional uncertainties.”

After his heart incident he “listened attentively to what the consultants” advised but after two weeks “slipped back into the bad old habits of having four or five hours sleep, snacking, no exercise, and all of the pressures of the job”.

“My family will be glad that I can start getting a new lifestyle that is more conducive to good health.”

Bucket list

And he adds, “What I know for sure is that I am not going to be sitting around with a blanket over my knees. I do intend to stay active and keep involved, whether it is in politics or something else time alone will tell.”

Could he become part of the political commentariat?

“I am open to offers,” Robinson laughs. “I am sure The Irish Times has need of a Northern Ireland commentator on its books . . . it will be difficult for me not to have comments on things that are going on.

“Whether they are fit to be published is another matter.”