OK, hands up all here who’d like to be Peter Robinson? No, I’ not thinking of the Iris thing – I mean who would like to be in his political position? There’d be the salary, of course – over £70,000 – and a pretty plump pension. ( Although even that’s relative. When Peter and Iris were both in the political field, as it were, the Daily Mail reported them as bringing over half-a-million annually into the Family Robinson home.) But while the pay remains good, it’s a job that involves some strain.
Particularly at this time, as the elections breast the horizon and comes thundering towards us. Peter, you see, has this stretching problem. No, not in terms of reaching out to take the hand which Martin McGuinness has extended for so long. I’m talking about how he’s pulled one way by the TUV and the opposite direction by the Alliance Party.
Today, Peter’s on the record as saying that if Martin McGuinness is guilty of any crime, then as in all other cases evidence should be produced and he should face the courts. That’s the TUV in the person of Jim Allister pulling him by the heels in a hard-line direction. Then there are the Alliance people pulling him by the hair, so he’s forced to make noises about shared futures and working together with all sections of the community. If he doesn’t do the TUV thing, he’s going to lose the votes of the already-disillusioned right-wing of unionism. If he doesn’t do the Alliance thing, it could mean a repeat of the Naomi Long debacle, when he lost his seat to the Alliance woman. The rematch may be a bit further down the road but it’s the thought that makes Peter wake up at night screaming.
Of course the First Minister knows that he can’t get a repeat of that famous police raid on Stormont, when Sinn Féin documents were seized and it was made clear the Shinners were a dubious and undesirable presence on the hill. Peter knows about the Good Friday Agreement and can read as well as the next person: streets and houses throughout the north are filled with people, republican and loyalist, who got “early release” (aka let out and let off). Not everybody liked it but that’s what we signed up to. And Peter knows that the chances of Martin McGuinness or Gerry Adams being hauled off in chains to stand trial are absolutely nil. But he still has to sound tough, because that’s what the DUP are meant to be – tough. At the same time there’s the nagging thought that too much toughness could put petrol in the Alliance tank and have them drive away with that Westminster seat on a permanent basis.
Doing the splits can be very, very painful.