The Robinson affair shows no sign of abating, and it still isn’t clear how this will pan out. But my word, it’s fascinating stuff. Yesterday, this blog enjoyed its busiest one-day traffic ever, though we’ll leave the statporn for later – it just goes to show that there’s nothing like a juicy scandal to bring in the punters. There is of course an enormous amount of commentary at Slugger, which comes into its own at times like these. In the dead tree press, there were articles catching my eye from Mick, Malachi, David Gordon and David McKittrick; from Mark at the Beeb; and on the blogs, from Garibaldy, Jenny, Chekov, Jamie (I like the Tennessee Williams theme), Unity and Red Maria.
What remains to be seen is whether the two governments and the other main party in our federal Executive pull their finger out and start a “Save Peter” operation; and whether it’s as effective in the long run as all the “Save David” operations that were run for Trimble. What’s clear to me is that, while the sex angle has spawned a million jokes (Iris’ vampy portrayal in The Folks on the Hill was not far off the mark, it seems), it’s the money angle that has the potential to seriously damage the DUP. And again, it’s not whether Peter’s fingerprints can be linked to corrupt practices, but whether he can be seen to put clear distance between himself and whatever Iris was doing.
In a way, Spotlight was a good example of what we might expect from post-Troubles journalism. It was clearly a bit of a rush job, thanks to Peter’s press conference, and did have the advantage of a whistleblower providing the details, but all the same – if we had a more combative media than we actually have, local government corruption would be a prime subject to look into. And it’s certainly a contributory factor that, if a member of the Robinson family wanted something to happen, it would take a very brave official of Castlereagh council to gainsay them. The DUP in north Antrim has already been brought low by its cosy relationship with property developers, which is at least as big a factor as the peace process in Jim Allister’s popularity in the area. For something similar to develop in east Belfast is extraordinarily bad for the party. Peter, an estate agent by trade, has very close links with developers, and you may recall the grousing there was from neighbours when he sold off his back garden for development – had Bertie Ahern or Charlie Haughey have done such a thing they would have been flayed in the press for it, but as is the nature of Norn Iron, it fell out of the headlines very quickly.
It’s in this context that we note the reticence of DUP reps when it comes to defending their leader. It’s actually the blow-ins, Arlene and Jeffrey, who’ve been doing most of the media. There’s also been Edwin Poots, but that is not an unmixed blessing in that Pootsie, while a relatively sensible DUP man, isn’t that great at media work and moreover belongs to the Paisley faction in the party. But last night, Gregory Campbell did surface on the Stephen Nolan show on Five Live, where he proceeded to tell Angry Steve that Peter had a week to clear his name. Thanks a lot, Gregory.
This leads Gonzo to ponder the succession question, and it’s a good question. It recalls to me something that Brian Feeney was saying a little while back, that the Assembly demonstrated not strength in depth so much as weakness in depth. Around three quarters of Stormont MLAs are local councillors, and you wouldn’t half know it. Many of them are people who might be great at sorting out your housing benefit, but don’t really have the air of parliamentarians. Some are about as useful as a parrot on a stick.
It’s a theme that Brian has been dealing with in terms of the SDLP leadership contest, and he would know, as he’s arguably the best leader the SDLP never had – in Brian’s mind, at least. One problem you had in the SDLP was a rather elderly leadership that hung around a very long time on the back of what it had done in the civil rights movement. But these were universally recognised as substantial people – it used to be that Alasdair McDonnell was seen as a bit of a wingnut in SDLP politics, but he’s now the heavyweight contender. The outgoing leader, Mark Durkan, and the other leadership candidate, Margaret Ritchie, are both capable people, but their main political experience was running constituency offices for John Hume and Eddie McGrady respectively. Can you imagine Margaret Ritchie putting up with the sort of crap that Séamus Mallon used to have to deal with? Me neither.
Add to that the culture of local fiefdoms. Brian Feeney knows all about this – not only could he not be leader of the SDLP, he couldn’t even be their top man in north Belfast while Allbran was in the way. Margaret Ritchie may be an Executive minister, but she appears incapable of suggesting to Eddie that he might like to retire. Or look at Banjo Man himself, Nelson McCausland, who would love nothing more than being MP for North Belfast and has been through three or four parties in pursuit of an elected position. Nelson spent years carrying Cecil Walker’s bags while waiting for Cecil to die; now, having defected to the DUP, he has to wait behind the relatively youthful Nigel Dodds. At least, I suppose, waiting behind Nigel Dodds is no worse than waiting behind Fred Cobain, and in the meantime Nelson has a ministry to keep him happy.
So that’s on the constituency scale – what about the party leaderships, given that the leaders of the two biggest parties are looking shaky? In the DUP’s case, were Peter to fall on his sword the next man in line constitutionally would be Deputy Dodds. But Nigel may not want the leadership or may prove vulnerable in turn, and I don’t think even Nigel would expect Nigel to set the world alight. After that, well, there’s no long-term prince across the water as Robinson was to Big Ian, and we start to see what Brian meant by weakness in depth. Some of the party’s MPs, notably Gregory Campbell in East Derry and Singing Willie in South Antrim, are in serious danger of losing their Westminster seats. Other leading figures are already damaged goods. If you’re in a situation where Sammy the Streaker, that living anti-gravitas device, comes into play as a leadership candidate, then you’re sunk.
The best they’ve got may well be the blow-ins. But Arlene, though well thought of in the DUP, has the misfortune to come from Fermanagh, where Michelle Gildernew is so popular with the farmers that Arlene’s electoral prospects are not great. Jeffrey’s Lagan Valley seat is probably safe as long as Jeffrey lives, but he isn’t particularly liked in the DUP, especially given his disastrous record as director of elections. And beyond that, who is there? Unless they want to draft in the octogenarian Papa Doc as an interim leader, Peter is as good as it gets.
This is also a problem for the Shinners, but in a slightly different way. They have a big membership and quite a few talented individuals – Martin McGuinness, as noted, is the north’s most popular politician by a long way, and in Conor Murphy and Michelle Gildernew they have two youthful and very capable ministers, plus John O’Dowd is emerging as the go-to man for media firefighting. But there are also serious constraints. One is a generational factor, as might be expected a dozen years after the Good Friday Agreement, in that most of the top leadership – McGuinness, Kelly, Doherty and for that matter Ferris down in Kerry – are about the same age as Gerry. Of these, the DFM is probably more interested in his Executive role than in the thankless job of party leader. And if you skip down a generation, you’ll be into the draft-dodgers, and there is a question mark about whether the party will wear that.
There’s also a geographical constraint. Spend much time talking to republicans in places like Newry or Tyrone or south Derry, and the most common complaint – even from pure Sinn Féin politicos – is about the extremely short leash the Belfast organisation kept them on. Belfast is the centre of gravity, and it is questionable whether the Belfast organisation would be prepared for a culchie, still less a southerner, to take on the leadership. And this can often be expressed in rather direct terms – ask those women who built up the Antrim cumann through a grassroots anti-drugs campaign, only to have a bunch of heavies from north Belfast come in and take over.
The paradox is that, for PSF as a whole, Gerry has been translating more and more into the folksy patriarch figure he would most like to be, but in Belfast he’s such a dominant personality that it’s hard to see anyone else coming through. Gerry Kelly is as old as Adams, and has a colourful background that some people might look askance at. Alex Maskey, from the wee hard man that he used to be, has become an accomplished media performer and is extremely popular with the membership. The sharpest thinker in the party, Tom Hartley, is still marooned at City Hall as a punishment for some obscure transgression. Beyond those guys, you’re into either the councillors who are good at parish pump stuff, or some leading members who aren’t public figures and you wouldn’t want going anywhere near a microphone. There’s no obvious successor, and if Gerry did walk there’d have to be some serious thought along the lines of putting in an interim leader while some of the younger people could be groomed.
Actually, of the Stormont parties, the one with the least of a succession issue is probably Alliance. Fordy is the one leader who looks and sounds most like a normal politician, but any one of the party’s half-dozen MLAs would be convincing enough as Alliance leader. As it is, if Fordy falls under a bus the leadership would probably go to Naomi Long, who could step into his shoes with no problem at all. Aided, of course, by her ability to speak for twenty minutes without drawing breath.
Rud eile: I note that Bertie is putting in for the artists’ tax exemption. This surely confirms what we all thought, that De Buke was a transparent work of fiction.
Rud eile fós: In Belfast, the Real SWP discreetly breaks cover. Thanks to Mark P for the tip.