I was on the side of the naysayers who disapproved the appointment of Peter Robinson to a professorship in peace studies. I didn’t believe they made good bed fellows. I never warmed to the man and I never accepted the worldly wisdom that he was a superb political strategist. I had judged him as being too self-serving and too self-protective to make a positive and lasting contribution.
So his maiden lecture at Queen’s University took me by surprise. I consider it the most important speech made by a unionist leader in recent times. He has proposed a possible way forward for the future of this island. My surprise now is that the political establishment and most of the media have failed to see the import of what he said.
He delights somewhat in the mantra that when a problem cannot be solved it needs to be enlarged
The concentration was on his analysis of leadership, or rather on its absence. The headlines were that he was heavily criticising his successor, Arlene Foster, who was sitting in the front row when he delivered the lecture. Undoubtedly, he is capable of throwing his former protege to the lions and I wasn’t surprised that, in analysing political leadership, his assessment of his own prowess is quite favourable. But those are passing and ultimately petty reactions.
However, he clearly understands that leadership is only ever the means to an end. It is where that leadership has to be directed that gives weight and importance to what he has to say. He argues that the re-establishment of the political institutions is not going to happen if the agenda is confined to those issues that remained unresolved during the last negotiations. He delights somewhat in the mantra that when a problem cannot be solved it needs to be enlarged. He describes how the politics of the North have made progress by adopting a step-by-step process. “The politics of process have served us well in the past,” he says. It was necessary... “to allow devolution to function by banking such progress as could be achieved. We now find ourselves in the downside of being in a process. The feeling that everything is temporary; that the arrangements are in flux; that the functioning of the Assembly will be repeatedly interrupted for negotiated pit-stops.”
He argues for permanence. He argues for a settlement rather than a continuing process. He is not, of course, embracing a united Ireland which he acknowledges has to be based on consent and subject to a Border poll. He correctly argues that a majority of one in a poll is simplistic and even dangerous and proposes an idea that such a poll/polls should be fixed and generational. And it is here that, as he says himself, he pulls the pin out of the grenade. “In this, of course, I am not talking about the nature and shape of the new state that would emerge if there ever was a vote to exit the UK. I am alluding to the need to agree a process for negotiations, timescales and not only the means of reaching agreement on all the particulars but also who would be involved in negotiating such an agreement.” Now that is explosive and very pertinent. He must know that such a suggestion is the start of putting flesh on the bones of an agreed Ireland. He knows that it is not only the setting of dates and process. He knows that it involves England and Ireland, unionist and nationalist at a table debating the texture of a future Ireland. And he knows only too well that who says it is even more important than what was said.
He proposes a fixed generational poll which he argues will provide greater stability
In the lecture he has told us that the Executive was unlikely to get up and running if the political system doesn’t enlarge and deepen the negotiations beyond what is on the table. He has told us that a majority-of-one Border poll is too simplistic to address the complexity of relationships on this island. Many would agree on those two points. He proposes a fixed generational poll which he argues will provide greater stability. On that some will have reservations. But it is the suggestion that we need a mechanism to begin exploring the logistics and the ramifications of a Border poll that is radical and transformative.
Since a very ill Martin McGuinness gave that emotional press conference informing us of his resignation and since the enormity of Brexit has begun to sink home, Northern politics has not been able to find a forum in which it can begin the debate on where to go from here. Nationalists are sitting with demographic change and Brexit in their back pocket. Unionists are silent, observing but knowing that the current influence of the DUP in Westminster is not going to last. Both know that there is a big conversation to be had. Both know that the Stormont institutions, even if they got up and running, are not the place for such futuristic discussions.
Peter Robinson, the once hard man, the brilliant political strategist, the cutest of them all, has suggested a forum that takes us to the next stage of relationship building on this island. In moving beyond my own emotional reactions to him and knowing that in politics it is important to play the ball and not the man, it would be wise that those who have ears to hear and those who have the power to make it happen should grab this ball and run with it with all their might.
Denis Bradley is a journalist and former vice-chairman of the police board for the Police Service of Northern Ireland