David McKittrick: Robinson was key to allowing Paisley enter government with Sinn Fein
He concentrated on masterminding the DUP’s battle to displace the Ulster Unionist party while doubtless privately wondering when Paisley would retire.
Peter Robinson: A one-time head of the Northern Ireland civil service described him as “somewhat scary.”Photo : Brian Lawless/PA Wire
During his four decades in Northern Ireland politics, Peter Robinson was seen as a cold fish rather than a people person, a figure who unlike his long-time leader Ian Paisley did not exude passion and who, even when delivering heated rhetoric, did not strongly stir loyalist listeners.
For most of his career he was utterly loyal to Paisley, sticking close to the Big Man at literally hundreds of rallies, demos and protests. As a speaker he could never equal the Paisley rhetoric - nobody could - but his skills as a backroom boy played a vital part in the DUP’s eventually successful campaign to displace the Ulster Unionists at the head of unionism.
For many years he was content to work again in Paisley’s giant shadow but eventually he grew restless, discreetly flirting with the idea of sharing power with Catholics - nationalists that is, not republicans. Some were left with the impression that he had grown more pragmatic and more moderate than Paisley.
In the 1980s this led British ministers to wonder if he could be tempted to deviate from the DUP’s public hard line. Northern Ireland Secretary Douglas Hurd decided to explore this, recalling in his memoirs: “At one time I had hopes of Paisley’s young deputy Peter Robinson, who had a sharper mind. I invited him to dine alone with me in the hope that hospitality would unlock a closed spirit. He accepted, but would not touch wine or whisky and I got nowhere.”
In those days of unionist uncertainty Robinson changed tack, and sought to place himself at the head of the furious unionist opposition to the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. As part of this he took part in a night-time incursion by hundreds of loyalists into Clontibret which was intended to highlight deficiencies in border security. But ignominiously he was arrested by Gardai and, when he faced criminal charges, he even more ignominiously pleaded guilty and agreed to pay a hefty fine.
This and other activities, as well as his often fierce attacks on opponents, led a one-time head of the Northern Ireland civil service to describe him as “somewhat scary.”
A lengthy period of frustration followed since unionism, while unwilling to share power, was also unable to bring down the Agreement. This was something of a wilderness period for Robinson - shades of Charlie Haughey - during which he concentrated on masterminding the DUP’s battle to displace the Ulster Unionist party while doubtless privately wondering when Paisley would retire.
Paisleys astonishing move to go into government with Sinn Fein was made possible once Robinson’s tactical and psephological expertise succeeded in making his party dominant within unionism, and the signs are that he strongly approved and helped persuade doubters in the DUP ranks to go along with it.
Given a Stormont department to run, he quickly established a reputation as the administration’s most able minister and Paisley’s natural successor. When Paisley stepped down in 2008 - much later accusing Robinson and others of stabbing him in the back - he took over without a contest.
His years as First Minister were strewn with incident, scandal and crises. After a quite promising honeymoon period came widespread loyalist street disturbances sparked by controversies over contentious parades and flag-flying, causing relations to nosedive. Robinson was criticised for not adopting a firmer approach and allegedly showing a lack of leadership.
Whatever ambitions he may have had when he took over, his horizons contracted drastically. The notion of building a new and more harmonious society, which he had sketched out, came to seem almost risible as relations within the coalition government went steadily downhill.
His relations with deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, seemed to remain businesslike but many DUP Assembly members could not be brought even to speak to Sinn Fein members.
His annus horribilis was 2010. First came the sensational revelation that his MP wife Iris, a Westminster MP, had been having an affair with a teenager - the newspapers called him a “toyboy.” As the story went round the world Robinson was personally shaken - he lost a large amount of weight - but he recovered well and stayed in office.
His standing suffered a major blow later in 2010 however when he lost the east Belfast seat he had held comfortably for more than 30 years. This was not due to the sex scandal but because the electorate disapproved of his involvement in the 2009 Westminster MPs expenses scandal, and his lavish lifestyle. His home, according to one visitor, featured “chandeliers in every room, curtains of wine and gold silk, towering Chinese vases and hundreds of china figurines and sculptures.”
His family was dubbed “Swish Family Robinson.” Unemployed voters in the run-down parts of his inner-city constituency deserted him in droves.
All these events dealt heavy blows to his personal authority, so that party hardliners took to muttering against him: he responded by calling critics “puffed-up lemmings,” but he seemed to lack the power to exert discipline over a party containing several different factions.
The DUP won back the east Belfast seat in this year’s general election but various misfortunes continued to dog him, and in recent months there was much talk that he had lost his touch.
Problems with his heart were also evident so that for months the speculation has been that, after a 40 year career which took him from unruly street protests to the corridors of power in Stormont, his time in office was coming to an end.