Northern Ireland minus Peter Robinson, who steps down as first minister today, will inevitably be different. Having helped negotiate the historic settlement that brought bitter old enemies to share government together in 2007, it was always clear to me that Peter Robinson was the crucial unionist navigator.
It would not – indeed could not – have happened without Ian Paisley who had always trumpeted ‘No!’. But, as his deputy, Robinson tidied up behind, and sometimes in front, of Paisley, carefully managing often spikily suspicious Democratic Unionist party colleagues, and always checking the detail inside out.
As the new first minister Paisley preached harmony and reconciliation where he had once fulminated fire and division. Astonishing all, not least his uneasy party members, by forming what was called ‘the chuckle brothers’ relationship with deputy first minister and former IRA commander Martin McGuinness. Meanwhile, Robinson negotiated the business of the new government and managed disgruntled colleagues. When they later moved to oust Paisley against his wishes, Robinson stepped up to become first minister.
The honeymoon was now over and the reality of a necessarily shotgun marriage between unionists and republicans set in, with perpetual crises, stand-offs and cliff edges. For if Northern Ireland had chosen peace rather than war, it had done so without resolving its ancient enmities and divisions. Nor could it ever have done so, in such a short period. The system of all-party, power-sharing government was the only option in the medium term, because none of the old enemies would have trusted each other to govern alone. But it has meant gridlock and frustration.
It is all to the good that these past nine years of devolved, inclusive government have produced a new era without the old violent conflicts. But as vetoes have obstructed effective governance, voters have become disillusioned.
The new era has worked in the sense that it has endured – and I think will continue to do so. That is crucial – but it hardly inspires. Which is why Peter Robinson’s role has been too often underrated. Under him the reality of ordinary politics set in – divisions over welfare reform and austerity instead of sectarianism and violence. He has been midwife to what has inevitably been, and will probably remain for at least a generation, a transitional phase.
Ending a bitter divide going back centuries was never going to happen quickly. The hatred, bombings, murders and terror may have been consigned to history politically, but deep distrust and insecurity remains emotionally.
But in this continuing transitional phase towards eventual political normalisation Northern Ireland’s clumsy and dysfunctional politics remains immeasurably better than the bitter prejudices and horror of the past. Peter Robinson deserves credit for that – and for something else: manging a smooth succession. Arlene Foster, who has been the assembly’s finance minister is the new DUP first minister: able, respected and steely, but non-tribal. As the first woman to lead Northern Ireland, she will bring a new style to its male-dominated culture. But do not saddle her with over- expectation. Less abrasive in public than Robinson, it remains to be seen whether she can manage her restless flock.
What is clear is Northern Ireland continues to move forward – sometimes sideways down a cul-de-sac, but never back. And that is no small achievement.
Peter Hain is a former secretary of state for Northern Ireland
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