David McKittrick: Power-sharing may be biggest victim of this saga


Saturday 09 January 2010 01:00

Whichever course the extraordinary saga of the dysfunctional family Robinson takes, the peace process is heading for a major crisis, causing nightmares in London, Dublin and Washington.

It is highly unlikely that Peter Robinson will survive the turmoil generated by his family, and even if he should somehow manage to cling on, he will continue to be dogged by the lurid tales of his wife's inappropriate sexual and financial appetites. He will always maintain that he has done nothing wrong but he has admitted that she had an affair, and cuckolds lack authority.

To have any faint chance of remaining in office, he would have to agree to thorough inquiries. Such investigations would inevitably give rise to a stream of details of political and sexual squalor, at a time when his Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is at loggerheads with Sinn Fein and is preparing to fight the Westminster election. It is impossible to imagine that a wounded leader could manage to cope on all these fronts.

His party will therefore be facing the election with a new leader at the helm. Who it might be is not at all clear, but a new leader would struggle to create unity in what is a divided party. Moreover, the party would be in no mood to concede the devolution of policing that is demanded by Sinn Fein, which means the election campaign will be a bitter one between unionists and republicans.

But there will be far more bitterness within unionism. The DUP is the biggest Protestant party, which is why first Ian Paisley and then Peter Robinson became First Minister at Stormont. But the DUP took an electoral hit last year when one-time member Jim Allister (now Traditional Unionist Voice) carved off a large slice of its vote. He is against the peace process, and clearly speaks for a section of Protestants opposed to sharing power with Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, who is Deputy First Minister.

The DUP suffered not only because of this factor but also from "Swish Family Robinson" resentment – widespread disapproval about their parliamentary salaries and expenses, which were on a heroic scale. The betting has to be that Mr Allister is going to take even more votes from a party which has been so battered by the Robinson revelations. The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) can also hope for a modest improvement in its showing.

This three-way split in the unionist vote has far-reaching implications, since it could easily allow Sinn Fein to become the largest single party. That would put Martin McGuinness in line to be not just the deputy, but the actual First Minister when the next Assembly election rolls around. Protestant voters are in the majority, but if their vote is splintered, Sinn Fein could well become number one in party terms.

Many unprecedented things have happened in this peace process, but it is inconceivable that unionist politicians would serve in an administration with Martin McGuinness at the helm. The result would be complete deadlock. Things could change: as the Robinson ruckus showed, Belfast politics can be full of surprises. But as things stand, a fractured unionism could undermine the entire process, largely because of the sudden collapse of the Robinson political dynasty.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments