ANALYSIS: Peter Robinson's climbdown shows unionism still lacks the capacity for self-criticism

Peter Robinson appeared to criticise Arlene Foster only to row back on his initial remarks. Picture by Queen's University Belfast/PA Wire

THERE's always been two sides to Peter Robinson. There's the contemplative, strategic thinking, pragmatist but there's also the shrewd populist politician who knows when to keep his thoughts to himself in case he's branded too soft on nationalism. In recent weeks we've heard from both.

In the first instance, with remarks we can assume he knew would be reported, the former DUP leader appeared to criticise his successor Arlene Foster's handling of the negotiations that collapsed in February. He described an Irish language act as a "such a small issue", about which unionists had been misinformed, while warning that political parties needed to be careful not to be led from the wings by outspoken agitators.

And in what appeared to be a message to the current DUP and Sinn Féin leaderships, he noted how "you don't get agreements without compromises".

Add to this the relative warmth of which he spoke about the late Martin McGuinness and the impression left was one of clear dissatisfaction with the direction the DUP had taken since he stepped down as leader three years ago. It was an assessment that chimed with that of many observers and continued on the critical theme Mr Robinson aired at the MacGill Summer School in August, where he said unionism needed to prepare for a border poll.

It was some straight talking of the kind unionism is unaccustomed to from within its own ranks, and was greeted accordingly – with the sort of tetchiness that once characterised Mr Robinson's own response to criticism.

But something seems to have happened in the few short days between his appearance at the Methodist Centre in east Belfast and his interview with the BBC, conducted in the US where the former first minister was taking part in a conference about the Good Friday Agreement.

Gone was any hint of misgivings about Mrs Foster's leadership and instead we got a glimpse of the Peter Robinson of old – the one who liked to blame the media for negative coverage.

Likewise, he was full of praise for Sammy Wilson – "one of the best commodities any political party can have" – after the East Antrim MP labelled the north's business groups "puppets" for daring to support the EU-UK withdrawal agreement and its backstop pledge to keep the border frictionless for trade. The DUP Brexit spokesman hadn't overstepped the mark or displayed a lack of respect for the region's wealth creators but was instead "passionate" about the leaving the EU.

There's no doubt that having spent the best part of a decade leading and managing unionism, Mr Robinson is well qualified to comment on the current political situation. However, to deliver such a frank assessment of his own party's failings only to subsequently pull his punches dilutes the value of his contribution and fuels speculation that he was somehow nobbled.

The disconnect between the DUP and its key constituencies of business and farming demonstrates that the party needs to rethink an approach which puts blinkered ideology ahead of economics. But if Peter Robinson can't speak his mind without feeling he has to then qualify his remarks and row back it only highlights a continued blindspot for unionism, namely its lack of capacity for reflection and self-criticism.

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