And so it has finally come to pass that Papa Doc has retired, a retirement that seemed to go on longer than a Wishbone Ash farewell tour. Truth be told, the big man has been winding down to retirement for a while now, and I have my doubts as to whether Ian would have done the deal when he did if he had reckoned that he had a few more years of rabble-rousing left in him. Then again, his electoral victory meant that he, Big Ian, was the indispensable man who would get to do the deal, and that would have flattered his ego no end. So I guess it’ll be off to join Eileen in the Lords, where he’ll be feted as a great character.
Which mean that Robbo gets his reward for 28 years as deputy leader, and has now ascended to the premiership of our little statelet. Yesterday’s special session of Stormont, called to elect the federal presidency after the Shinners called off their little phony war over dissolving the Assembly, did its duty in an occasion marked by a fair bit of sentimentality. Even Grizzly, who isn’t much of a hail-fellow-well-met character, and whose folksiness is usually mixed in with an undertone of menace, tried his hand at quipping lightly in his tribute to Big Ian. Robbo, meanwhile, paid appropriate obeisance to the old man’s legacy. Only the Official Unionists and the SDLP added a sour note to the love-in, but nobody much cares what they think these days.
Will this bring change? The DUP spin-meisters, acutely aware of Jim Allister’s Prodiban attacking on their right flank, are letting it be known that the era of the Chuckle Brothers is over, and Robbo himself has flagged up that his relations with both the Shinners and Dublin will be proper and professional rather than the happy-clappy stuff Papa Doc has been going in for on his victory lap. This will go down well with the grassroots. And yet, in his speech yesterday Robbo was keen to emphasise continuity, that the changes would be more in style than substance.
It really is all about the optics, isn’t it? And, since everybody at Stormont agrees with everybody else about most of the important things, personalities get to have a bigger impact than they would if there were alternatives on offer. The Chuckle Brothers phenomenon has this background – Paisley and McGuinness, whatever about their hard-man images, are both well-known as jovial and gregarious types, so once politics no longer kept them apart, it really was no wonder they hit it off so well. With Robinson, he of the spiky demeanour and acid tongue (his Folks on the Hill caricature is only a slight exaggeration) in the driving seat, backed up by the lugubrious Nigel Dodds, there won’t be nearly as much of this feelgood factor malarkey. Plus, both Robbo and Doddsy have been keen to promote themselves as pragmatic technocrats. Only pragmatic, of course, within the framework of DUP orthodoxy, but then that’s nearly conventional wisdom nowadays.
The one thing to watch out for will be the reshuffle of ministers. Most speculation has centred around Caitríona Ruane, who is probably holed beneath the waterline at education due to the ongoing 11+ shambles. But on the DUP side, the one to look out for is culture, the department with jurisdiction around a lot of the push-button symbolic issues, which is why the unionists are always dead keen to run it. Word has it that Gregory Campbell is being lined up for the post. If that’s the case, the gays and Gaeilgeoirí can expect a rough ride.